Serenity After Trial
“I thought the process was going to be hideous, humiliating and shameful,” Karen recalls of her bankruptcy more than a decade ago. “I was terrified when I went to see Richard Killen. I was in tears as I walked into his office.”
Karen’s story of battling debt is a familiar one. She had decided to make a brave midlife career change from working as a bartender. Finding employment in a Toronto health food store, she made the decision to go back to school to get certified as holistic nutritionist.
In classes for two years and working for close to minimum wage, she had to get student loans to make ends meet. And when this money fell short, she dipped into a line of credit.
“I found myself in about $30,000 of debt,” says Karen. “Things had gotten out of hand. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. But I talked to a friend who had gone through a similar crisis and he suggested I go to see Richard at Richard Killen & Associates.”
Karen was quickly reassured in her first meeting with Richard. “I sat down in the chair and he just made me laugh – in a nice way. He was just very kind to me. He assured me that this kind of thing happens to people and it doesn’t mean that they are bad or that they have to go through a humiliating experience.”
Killen points out that making mistakes simply qualifies all of us for membership in the human race. “We all make mistakes – every day,” he says from his Toronto office. “It’s what we do about them that defines who we are. This is something we forget when we are swamped by the problems.”
Killen then outlined her options, helping Karen to realize that not only could she survive but successfully manage the bankruptcy process. Most importantly, he made her realize that the choices were hers – nobody else’s. “He never left me hanging. If I called he was always available,” she says. “I always knew how I was doing during the nine months of the bankruptcy process.”
Karen was fortunate to able clear away her student loans along with her other debts when she received her bankruptcy discharge. “Student loans are different from regular debts such as credit cards,” explains Killen. “They are not given for normal profit-making reasons. They are meant to help us improve our future life by improving our education, so it’s understandable that they should be given special status under the law. A person has to make a reasonable effort to pay them back. However, sometimes no matter how hard a person tries they just can’t do it. If after seven years a person still can’t pay then the student loans qualify to be treated like any commercial debt. This is what happened with Karen”
Within a year of going bankrupt, Karen hit her new career path with full force. She managed a series of health food stores, worked in an holistic apothecary and had clients on the side for her holistic nutrition counselling.
A couple of years ago, she decided to make another major life change – less a career shift than giving herself space to understand and act upon her priorities, truly achieving that elusive work-life balance. She returned to the support network of friends and family in small-town Nova Scotia. And while she considers her next move, she is doing part-time work and volunteering in the kitchen of a Buddhist centre, practising meditation and finding a measure of serenity in the combination.
“The great thing is,” says Karen, “if I hadn’t gone through the bankruptcy process I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s given me the space to get on with my life. As hard and distasteful it was to contemplate beforehand, it turned out to be one of the best things I could have done.”
Graduating Into Debt
Getting a student loan can be double-edged sword. Many kids can’t afford a higher education without one. But the downside is that a lot of students are graduating with huge debts that they many find hard and in some cases impossible to pay off.
The problem of student debt in Canada is on the rise. According to a September 2013 Globe and Mail article, accumulated student debt is now more than $15 billion nationally, and perhaps as high as $23 billion, if you take into account credit card debt, lines of credit and provincial loan programs.
The problem is worsening as government levels of funding for post-secondary education decrease and students are left with bearing more of the cost. The Globe article points out that the government share of funding has declined from 84 to 58 per cent, at the same time as tuition fees have jumped 12 to 15 per cent.
What if I simply can’t repay my student loans when the time comes?
Well, let’s hope this doesn’t happen, but if you have no other options bankruptcy may be necessary. The question then arises: “If I have a student loan, will bankruptcy take care of it for me?”
The answer is technical. When a person goes bankrupt, they are applying to the courts to simply “get rid” of their debts. It’s called getting discharged from the bankruptcy and therefore the debts. Whether your discharge would eliminate your student loans along with any other debts you had when you filed depends on time. When did you officially end your career as a full- or part-time student.
If you left school seven or more years before you filed your bankruptcy, then your student loans should be discharged. If you left school less then seven years before filing, they won’t be.
The definition of exactly when you “left school” has been the subject of at least three court cases with different results. The general and safest definition of when you left school is the last day of the month in which your class graduated. When you last physically attended classes doesn’t really matter. Finishing early or dropping out doesn’t change this date. At Richard Killen & Associates, we advise you to be as sure as you can about your school leaving date. You can usually get the correct info from the government by calling 1-888-815-4514, but some people may have to go back to their learning institution to find out.
How would all this apply to a consumer proposal?
Pretty much the same way, except you don’t actually get discharged from your debts when you do a consumer proposal. When you successfully complete your payments in a consumer proposal, you receive what’s called a Certificate of Full Performance to prove to the world that you succeeded in paying off your creditors. Since a consumer proposal captures all your unsecured creditors (and a student loan is an unsecured debt), the successful completion of the consumer proposal payments should get rid of the student loans, too, right? Yes, but only if you had been out of school seven years on the date you filed the proposal.
So what if I am in debt trouble but I haven’t yet been out of school for seven years?
Well, you still have the same legal option under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act: a bankruptcy or a proposal/consumer proposal. The difference is that when you get to the end of either one, your discharge or full-performance will not include the student loans. You will still need to pay them back.
But what if I’m still unable to pay the student loans?
If you were under the magic number seven when you filed, but still cannot handle the student loans after your discharge, there is another relief option. You have to wait until you have been out of school five years. Then you can apply to the bankruptcy court for an order to have your student loans covered by your bankruptcy discharge (or certificate of full-performance from the consumer proposal). You would need to hire a lawyer to get this done and it cannot be done before your bankruptcy or consumer proposal are successfully completed.
Pretty convoluted, eh? That’s why we simply say call us. At Richard Killen & Associates we can make it make sense to you in a way that will empower you to make the right decisions.
We also want to add that you can look for some student debt relief by going to the National Student Loans Service website and finding out about the Repayment Assistance Plan. Available on both Canada and Ontario portions of student loans, RAP offers both interest relief and debt reduction, which could include lowering monthly payments and extending you loan repayment period for up to 15 years.