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  • Writer's picturePreston Morris

Can You Go to Jail For Not Paying Student Loans?

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

You cannot be arrested or placed in jail for not paying student loan debt, but it can become overwhelming. Student loan debts are considered “civil” debts, which are in the same category as credit card debt and medical bills. Because of this, they cannot send you to jail for not paying them.

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Failure to repay debt is not a criminal action in the U.S. It is a civil matter. What’s the difference? Criminal charges require committing a crime against the state. Civil charges are between two individuals or businesses — a borrower and a lending company, for example. If a lender sues you over your student loan debt, it will be in civil court.

You will not go to jail over a civil matter.

What happens if I don't pay off my student loans?

Unfortunately, there can be many negative consequences of failing to make your student loan payments, including wage garnishment, a drop in your credit score or a suspension of your professional license.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Your wages may be garnished. When it comes to debt - whether for tax debts or student loans - the feds have a potentially powerful reach. That includes the ability to garnish your wages (generally up to 15% of your take home pay) to satisfy your debt.

  • You may be sued. This is more likely to happen when it comes to private loans but you can be sued for the balance of the outstanding debt. When that happens, not only are you on the hook for the debt but also potentially for attorney's fees and other costs.

  • Your mom may be sued. Okay, this really depends on whether your mom actually co-signed the loan. Any person that co-signs a loan for you is generally subject to the same terms as you: if you fail to pay, the lender will try to get money from the next in the line. That could be your mom. Or your dad. Or your great aunt. Don't leave them to clean up after your mess.

  • Your federal income tax refund may be seized. This is often called "offset" since the seizures are part of the Treasury Offset Program (TOP); the program is administered by Financial Management Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Do unpaid student loans go away after 7 years? Student loans don't go away after seven years. There is no program for loan forgiveness or cancellation after seven years. But if you recently checked your credit report and are wondering, "why did my student loans disappear?" The answer is that you have defaulted student loans.

What happens if you go to jail with student loans?

The government says it will write off the loans if the borrower is to be incarcerated for a period exceeding 10 years or more. The Department says that debts can be reinstated for borrowers whose loans have been written off as a result of prolonged incarceration if they subsequently wish to make repayment arrangements.

What Should You Do If You Can’t Make Your Loan’s Minimum Monthly Payment?

Fortunately, there’s a great deal of help out there if you find yourself unable to make the required minimum monthly loan payments. However, it’s important that you take action before your account becomes delinquent.

Contact the Lender

Start off by contacting your lender to see if you can negotiate a lower monthly payment that’s more in line with what you can afford. You’d be surprised how many lenders are willing to work with borrowers. They’d rather collect some money than no money at all.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

If you have a federal student loan, you can contact the lender and request to be put on an income-driven repayment plan. You’ll need to demonstrate a financial need; however, those who qualify will have their monthly loan payment adjusted based on their income. Not only does that mean a lower monthly payment, but also the possibility of having any remaining debt on the loan forgiven after 20 to 25 years.

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Deferments are an option for several different groups of people. Individuals serving in the military, students still attending school, employees of a public service organization, students in a medical residency and anyone suffering financial hardship is eligible to apply for a deferment on their student loans. With a deferment, you can pause your student loan payments for a period of time, not to exceed three years. During this time, subsidized loans do not accrue interest, however, unsubsidized loans do.


A forbearance is similar to a deferment in that it puts a pause on your payments. The loan will continue to grow interest with a forbearance, which means when you resume making payments, you’ll have a larger debt to tackle. Most forbearance programs are available in 12-month increments, so you’d need to reapply each year that you qualify.

How to avoid arrest for unpaid student loans

There are several steps you can take to avoid being arrested and jailed for a failure to repay your student loans.

  • Show up in court. If you are sued for a failure to repay your student loans, show up in court, ideally with an attorney. If you don’t show up in court, not only will judgment be rendered against you, but you can be arrested for contempt of court. If you can’t show up in court for health or other reasons, call the court to ask for the court date to be rescheduled.

  • Update your address with the lender. Notify the loan servicer whenever you move. You are required to do so by the promissory note. A failure to provide the loan servicer with your current address can cause notices to be sent to an old address.

  • Open your mail. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) allows you to tell creditors to stop contacting you. This will stop most of the mail and telephone calls. They can still contact you to tell you about specific actions they are taking, such as filing a lawsuit against you.

  • Keep loan payment records forever. Keep records of your student loan payments and paid-in-full statements indefinitely. Statutes of limitation do not apply to federal student loans. Paid off and settled debt has a tendency to resurrect itself. It can be difficult to prove that the debt is not owing decades later without documentation.

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