Q. My mom is in the unfortunate situation of being a co-signer on a student loan and was informed she qualified to be taken off after 24 months of payments. She had the main person on the account (who has been absent for the whole loan) sign the paper to release her. She then got a call from Sallie Mae saying that they contacted the main borrower to tell him that the minimum payment had doubled. He has not paid one cent towards the balance for the life of the loan so my mom has paid every month. They told her if she paid the remaining $40 she would be taken off the loan. Then, another rep called her yesterday to tell her she didn't qualify for the removal because she hadn't paid 24 consecutive months. He said because she only paid a partial payment this month she didn't qualify, but she told him that she had since paid the rest. He said the system didn't see that and they were going to send the account to collections. Is there anything she can do?
A. Will, I contacted Sallie Mae on your mother's behalf, as you already know because she had to submit written permission allowing the company to talk to me. Amanda Holt, manager of customer advocacy for the company, told me that there are two things at play here. First of all, they went back and looked at the account, and listened to the calls between your mom and their customer service reps, and they agree with you – the process did not go as smoothly as it should have.
"We agree that the information about the cosigner release application process shared with Ms. Adams could have been relayed more clearly, though the application itself and the promissory note [that Ms. Adams and the primary borrower both signed] did convey the requirements precisely. As a result, even though the required number of principal and interest payments were not made, we nevertheless continued the application process," explains Holt.
What that means, essentially, is that they attempted to approve your mother's request to be removed from the loan, even though the full 24 payments haven't been made (Holt says that your mother and the primary borrower are nine principal and interest payments short). I say "attempted," because the application wasn't approved. Because the primary borrower didn't send Sallie Mae written permission to discuss the account with us, Holt couldn't tell me why this happened. But she did explain the process: "A primary borrower may apply to release the cosigner after making 24 months of on-time principal and interest payments. Once this initial requirement is met, we then review the primary borrower's credit history and financial situation to ensure that his or her financial situation can handle making the payments without a cosigner's support."
My theory here, based on what you've told me about the primary borrower's payment practices, or lack thereof, is that he didn't pass that credit check. This loan, which Holt says is 41 days past due, surely isn't helping.
So what can your mom do now? She can continue making payments, on time and in full. But I'd also strongly encourage her to put the pressure on the primary borrower to both contribute to these payments each month, and to work on his credit score so he can eventually take over the loan on his own. A few ways to do that: He can get a secured credit card, if he isn't eligible for a standard card (see this list of options from Credit.com). He can make the payments on this loan and any other debt he has on time each month. And he can try to pay down debt he's carrying, if he has a high debt to credit ratio.
Finally, if you want more information about Sallie Mae's cosigner release policy, you can find it here.
Consumer Ally problem solver Jean Chatzky is the "Today Show" financial adviser, a longtime financial journalist and best-selling author.