Let me guess:
You’re filling out the income-driven repayment plan request form. You check the box that says you’re married. And then when you get to the bottom you see this:
And now you’re wondering:
Why does my spouse have to sign my income-driven repayment form?
We’ll get to the answer.
Actually, we won't because there's not a great answer. But if you want to jump ahead to the best answer I could find, go right ahead.⤵️
But before we do, let’s get the full context of what happens with income-based repayment plans when you’re married by answering:
When does my spouse’s income affect my income-based repayment amount
You know the basics of income-driven repayment plans, right?
Married loan borrowers could end up with a higher student loan payment than loan borrowers who are single. It all comes down to what plan you choose and your tax filing status (married filing separately or jointly).
Click here to learn How Does Married Filing Separately Affect Student Loans?
Is my spouse's income considered in student loan repayment
To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s review the different income-driven repayment options and how they calculate income for married borrowers:
- Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE). Counts you and your spouse’s income no matter how you filed your taxes.
- Pay As You Earn (PAYE). Counts you and your spouse’s income only if you filed your taxes married filing jointly.
- Income-Based Repayment (IBR). Same as PAYE. Counts you and your spouse’s income only if you filed jointly.
- Income Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR). Counts your spouse’s income regardless of how you filed your taxes.
- How to Complete the Income-Driven Repayment Plan Request Form
- How to Find Your Student Loans With the National Student Loan Data System
Reminder. Direct Loans (including most Direct Consolidation Loans) qualify for the REPAYE, PAYE, and IBR plans. FFEL loans do not qualify for the REPAYE or PAYE. You have to use the IBR plan for your FFEL loans unless you consolidate them into a Direct Consolidation loan. Similarly, FFEL loans don't qualify for loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Again, you have to consolidate them into a Direct Consolidation to qualify for loan forgiveness.
Based on each plan’s requirements, your spouse’s income matters only if:
- you filed your last tax return jointly, or
- you’re repaying under either the REPAYE or ICR plans.
In those instances, your joint income, that is your combined adjusted gross income (AGI), will be used to calculate your student loan repayment amount.
Further reading: The Affect of Capitalized Interest on Student Loans
[M]ost borrowers would be deterred from falsifying information on a Federal application form by the significant penalties that can be applied.
Conversely, your spouse’s income doesn’t matter for your monthly payment amount if:
- you filed your last federal income tax return separately; and
- you’re repaying under either the PAYE or IBR plan.
Okay, so that explains when your spouse’s income matters.
But that still doesn’t tell us:
Why your spouse is required to cosign the income-driven repayment form
I have yet to find a legitimate answer as to why your spouse is required to cosign the income-driven repayment form.
I mean, I have my best guess. But I don’t have an answer based on law.
And trust, I’ve reviewed the IDR form instructions. They’re silent.
I did the same with the relevant Code of Regulations. They're also silent.
I even dug into the legislative history for these federal loan programs. And what did I find? Nothing.
Given that lack of information, all I’m left with is my best guess as to why your spouse needs to cosign income-driven repayment plan.
Here it is:
Your spouse’s signature is required to verify that their personal information — SSN, Name, DOB, and income information — is correct.
That reason makes sense because, by signing, your spouse is certifying that the information they provided is true, complete and correct to the best of their knowledge and belief.
But what if they haven’t provided any information? That’s when my reason falls apart.
Let me explain:
The only time your spouse has to provide that information is if:
- You’re still together;
- You can reasonably access their information; and
- They have federal student loans.
But there’s at least one scenario where your spouse wouldn’t have to provide any information but would still be required to sign.
Here’s that scenario:
- You’re in the IBR plan;
- You filed your last federal income tax return married filing separately;
- You’re still with your spouse;
- You can reasonably access their information; and
- Your spouse does not have federal student loans.
In that instance, your spouse would not have provided their personal information (SSN, Name, or DOB). And, because you filed your federal income tax return separately, they also would not have provided any other documents (i.e, income information). Yet in still, the form requires their signature.
Under the scenario I just described, your spouse is still included in your family size even though you're not using their income. This is different from those who cannot reasonably access their spouse's information. In that case, your spouse does not count towards your family size. And that means your loan payment will be higher.
So what do we make of this requirement?
I don’t know.
The reality is that there probably is no good answer to: “why does my spouse have to sign my income-driven repayment form?”
The fact of the matter is if you want your loan servicer to quickly process your Income-Driven Repayment form, your spouse needs to sign the form. That is unless you’re separated or can’t reasonably access their information.
And that brings us to…
When are you unable to reasonably access spouse's income information
Much like the question before this, there’s no definitive answer to say what constitutes “unable to reasonably access spouse’s income information”.
The form doesn’t help.
It just has a box that says, "married, but cannot reasonably access my spouse's income information."
An old form used to ask "are you able to access information about your spouse's income and able to have your spouse sign this application?" That language was removed from the latest version of the IDR form.
The applicable regulations don't help either.
The best I could come up with is found in the legislative history to the Federal Family Education Loan and William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Programs.
According to that history, it seems that the “unable to reasonably access” requirement was meant to protect people who file their tax returns separately but were estranged from their spouse or who were domestic abuse survivors.
At this point, you're probably thinking: "What's to stop me from lying about whether I can reasonably access my spouse's income?"
In reviewing that same commentary, I saw that one commentator posed that same question.
The Department of Education, however, rejected those concerns.
In so doing, it said it believed “that most borrowers would be deterred from falsifying information on a Federal application form by the significant penalties that can be applied.”
The Department added that they believed the benefits of providing the “unreasonable access” exception “outweigh the costs that could result if some borrowers falsify information in violation of Federal law.”
So where does that leave you?
My best guess? If you’re estranged from your spouse, you can safely say that you’re unable to reasonably access your spouse’s information.
Your spouse cosigns the income-based repayment form at studentloans.gov using the spouse login
So let’s assume you can reasonably access your spouse’s information.
And let’s also assume your spouse is ready to sign the form.
The next thing to wonder is:
How do they do that?
Well, if you’re using the paper form, this is pretty easy. Your spouse signs beneath your signature.
But what if you’re completing the form electronically at studentloans.gov?
In that case, you’ll go to the Co-Sign Income Driven (IDR) Plan Request page.
To log in, your spouse will need:
- A reference number;
- Your Social Security Number; and
- Their own FSA ID.
You can find the reference number after you complete an IDR form. It will be under “My Loan Documents” on your dashboard.
The reason why you want your spouse to cosign the IDR form
Under each of the income-driven repayment plans, your monthly payment amount is determined by 3 things:
- Family size;
- Adjusted gross income; and
- State of residence
Those 3 things determine your discretionary income. Your discretionary income, in turn, determines your monthly payment amount.
So you know, discretionary income is simply your AGI less 150 percent of the poverty guidelines for your family size and state.
In other words, the larger your family size and the lower your AGI, the lower your discretionary income will be.
By having your spouse cosign your student loan, you're including your spouse in your family size and thereby decreasing your discretionary income. And that, in turn, gives you a lower repayment amount.
Is a spouse responsible for student loans incurred before marriage?
You're not responsible for the student loans your spouse borrowed before you got married.
Likewise, your spouse is not responsible for student loans you incurred before marriage.
Things may change, however, for student loan borrowers who incur student loan debt after marriage
If you live in a community property state — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin — student loan debt incurred after marriage may be considered joint debt. You should speak with a student loan lawyer in your state if you have questions about this.
Your spouse needs to sign your income-driven repayment form. Yes, there’s no real reason why your spouse should have to do so. But it’s a requirement. So just do it.
Sure, you can fight it. But all that does is cause unneeded stress while slowing down the processing of your income-driven repayment form.
In my opinion, the bigger concern is making sure you can reasonably access your spouse’s information. And if you can do that, then the ultimate concern is choosing the right repayment plan to give you the lowest monthly payment.
For my money, that’s either going to be the PAYE plan or the REPAYE plan.