Under the federal Bankruptcy Code, certain debts are not eligible for discharge by a bankruptcy court at the end of a case. Nondischargeable debts include certain tax debts, 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(1); spousal and child support, id. at § 523(a)(5); and debts that resulted from fraud, theft, and other deceptive or unlawful acts, id. at §§ 523(a)(2), (4), (6). For many, perhaps most nondischargeable debts, a rationale based on public policy seems clear. This might not be the case, however, with regard to student loans, including both public loans, which are backed by the federal government, and private loans. Rather than attempting to deduce a public benefit from making student loans nondischargeable, it is worth looking into how they became nondischargeable in the first place.
Student loans are only subject to discharge in bankruptcy if a debtor proves that continuing to make payments would cause an “undue hardship” to them and their dependents. 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8). No single legal standard applies throughout the country for determining whether a debtor has established “undue hardship.” The Ninth Circuit, which includes California, has adopted a three-part test known as the Brunner test, found in Brunner v. N.Y. State Higher Educ. Serv. Corp., 831 F.2d 395, 396 (2d Cir. 1987). Other circuits have adopted a test known as the “totality of the circumstances,” first developed in In re Andrews, 661 F.2d 702, 704. (8th Cir. 1981). Both tests require a court to examine a debtor’s financial situation and determine whether it is possible that conditions might improve enough to allow the debtor to continue paying the loans. In other words, bankruptcy courts must attempt to predict the future.
Student loans therefore differ in at least one important way from other nondischargeable debts because there is an exception provided in the statute itself. As noted earlier, most nondischargeable debts have some obvious justification, such as the fault of the debtor in the case of a debt incurred through fraud, or the need of a dependent in the case of child support. Student loans, as it turns out, became nondischargeable quite incrementally.