Tuition Credits are Not a Student Loan and Dischargeable When Filing Bankruptcy

By Ryan C. Wood

You have probably heard over and over that student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy unless you can prove that repaying the student loans constitutes an undue hardship for you. That is still the case. 11 U.S.C. 523(8) excepts from discharge (A)(i) an education benefit overpayment or loan made, insured, or guaranteed by a governmental unit, or made under any program funded in whole or in part by a governmental unit or nonprofit institution; or (ii) an obligation to repay funds received as an education benefit, scholarship, or stipend; or (B) any other educational loan that is a qualified education loan, as defined in §221(d)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, incurred by a debtor who is an individual. This means if your student loans fall into any of the above categories the debt is not dischargeable in your bankruptcy case and you will still owe the funds after your case is closed unless you can prove undue hardship by filing an adversary proceeding.

Although the statute above may seem daunting there may be hope. In a recent case, In re: Christoff, Bankruptcy Case No. 13-10808DM, Northern District of California (2014), the court held that the debts held by Ms. Christoff were never received by her and therefore are not excepted from discharge by 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(8) and were discharged in her Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. In this case, Ms. Christoff attended the Institute of Imaginal Studies dba Meridian University (“Meridian”). She was awarded $6,000 in financial aid to pay for some of her tuition. She signed a promissory note. She did not actually receive any funds from Meridian though. Instead, what she received was a tuition credit. The terms of the note required her to pay back the funds at $350 per month after she finishes her coursework or she withdraws from Meridian along with 9% interest to be compounded monthly. She received another $5,000 in tuition credit the following year after signing a promissory note with the same terms. She withdrew from Meridian after completing all her coursework and clinical hours but before she completed her dissertation. She filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in August 2013 and Meridian filed an adversary proceeding to determine that the amount owed to Meridian was nondischargeable under 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(8) as a student loan.

The court in this case thoroughly examined student loan cases throughout the Ninth Circuit and other circuits. What is important to bankruptcy lawyers is what differentiates this current case with all other student loan cases is the fact that Ms. Christoff never received the funds from Meridian nor did Meridian receive funds from any other source. Ms. Christoff received a “credit” towards her education to be paid back at a later time. Both parties agreed that Meridian was not a governmental unit so they did not fit into §523(8)(A)(i). They also agreed that Meridian did not fit into §523(8)(B). Therefore the only avenue to except the debt from discharge is §523(8)(A)(ii). The entire case hinged on whether the funds were received as an education benefit, scholarship or stipend. The court determined that since there were no funds received in Ms. Christoff’s case, the debt did not fit into §523(8)(A)(ii) either and therefore the debt was dischargeable in her bankruptcy case.

What is interesting to note in this case as well is the fact that the court looked to one case, In re Oliver, 499 B.R. 617 (Bankr. S.D. Ind. 2013) where a university withheld a student’s transcript because she did not pay the tuition or related fees. The Oliver court indicated that to be excepted from discharge, the debt must still be a loan. Therefore if you did not borrow money to pay the tuition (i.e: you pay for it yourself without borrowing money from a governmental entity, private student loan company, from the school itself, or from any other third party) the debt does not fit into any of the above exceptions to discharge and is therefore dischargeable in a bankruptcy. This court completely agreed with the Oliver court in their analysis and conclusion. Meridian’s bankruptcy attorney appealed this case on the same day the decision came out so we may or may not have the same result later on. We will follow continue to monitor this case and will report on the outcome of the appeal.