Automatic Student Loan Forbearance: What Is It, and When Does It Happen?

Surprise! Your federal student loans are in automatic forbearance.

Student holding her face in her hands at a table in front of a laptop

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Forbearance suspends student loan payments for a specific period of time, and it's usually requested by a strapped borrower who is in need of temporary student loan relief. Sometimes loan servicers can place borrowers in automatic student loan forbearance in some circumstances.

The March 2020 passage of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act initiated an automatic administrative forbearance on federally owned student loans. So, when can automatic forbearance kick in, and how can it affect your student loan repayment?

What Is Automatic Student Loan Forbearance?

General student loan forbearances are typically granted at the borrower’s request when they provide documentation of their need for relief. The other type of forbearance is administrative. It includes automatic forbearance. An administrative forbearance can be granted at a borrower’s request, or it can be triggered automatically under specific circumstances. 

“Administrative forbearances are the types of forbearance where the (U.S. Department of Education) secretary has discretion to put a borrower in forbearance without asking for additional documentation from the borrower,” Kyra Taylor, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance program, told The Balance

Eligibility for administrative or automatic forbearance can vary among different types of federal student loans. Direct loans, FFEL loans, Perkins loans, and HEAL loans are subject to different rules for forbearance.

When Is Automatic Forbearance Granted?

The guidelines governing automatic and administrative forbearance can be specific to loan type, and they can be complicated. 

Coronavirus Administrative Forbearance

The CARES Act’s coronavirus student loan relief provisions direct the Department of Education to grant automatic student loan forbearance on all federally owned student loans. This administrative forbearance period continues through January 31, 2022. The CARES Act suspends both student loan payments and interest.

You can ask for the suspension to be removed, however, if you can manage your loan payments during this pause.

This temporary suspension of student loan interest is unique to forbearance granted under the CARES Act. Student loan interest will still continue to accrue during most other kinds of forbearance.

The Department of Education expanded its loan forbearance to include Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) on March 31, 2021. Any payments made between March 13, 2020, and September 30, 2021, are eligible for reimbursement. Interest and penalties will not accrue, and wages or tax refunds that are garnished during this time to pay the private loan owner will be returned to the borrower.

The loan will additionally be restored to good status if it was in default, and the credit bureaus will be notified to remove any delinquency from your credit report.

Disaster or Emergency Forbearance

Borrowers who live in declared federal disaster areas, such as those due to hurricanes, can qualify for disaster forbearance for up to 90 days, and it can be renewed for 30 days at a time after the 90 days expires. 

Some servicers might only put you into automatic forbearance, if you live in a disaster area, after you miss payments.

Retroactive Forbearance or Deferment

An administrative forbearance can be granted for a past repayment period in some cases. According to Taylor, this type of forbearance is commonly granted for the time when payments were overdue and before an authorized deferment or forbearance began. 

Loans Waiting for Discharge or Forgiveness

Some forms of student loan discharge or forgiveness require that the Department of Education review documentation and determine whether the borrower is eligible. Eligible federal student loans are typically put into an automatic administrative forbearance during this time, according to Taylor.

Borrowers might be eligible for forgiveness of federal student loans if they borrowed the money to attend a school that misled students or engaged in unlawful misconduct. Their federally held student loans must be automatically placed in forbearance if a borrower files a “defense to repayment” forgiveness claim.

The servicer might also receive notice of a borrower’s death or disability. It grants administrative forbearance on the borrower’s loans while it collects documentation to establish a death or disability that would discharge the student debt.

How Will You Know if Automatic Forbearance Is Applied?

You don’t have to make payments during a period of administrative forbearance, but it’s important to pay attention to your student debt. “If a servicer or the Department [of Education] initiates a forbearance, it should notify the borrower [via email or U.S. mail],” Taylor said.

Taylor advises calling your servicer if you learn that your student loans were put into forbearance. Check to make sure that the correct forbearance was applied to your loans, and ask about your next steps and due dates for renewing the forbearance or resuming payments.

Log into your student loan servicer account, or contact its team by phone for updates on your student loan status. Another option would be to log into the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to view your student loan information, which is updated at least monthly. 

The Implications of This Type of Forbearance

The CARES Act administrative forbearance differs from traditional forbearance in several ways.

Interest is suspended, so this period of forbearance won’t end with an increase in your balance. This law also directs servicers to treat the forbearance period as if you had made payments on time when they report to credit agencies. They must track progress toward certain kinds of forgiveness, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

Having student loans in forbearance under other terms will affect your repayment in a few ways, however:

  • You'll have a longer repayment period. Your payments are suspended now, so you'll have to make up those payments later.
  • You won’t have to pay interest during your forbearance period, but Direct and FFEL loans will still accrue interest during most kinds of forbearance. Unpaid interest is capitalized, or added to your balance, when you exit forbearance. It increases both your student loan balance and the total amount repaid.
  • PSLF requires that you make a certain number of payments before student loan forgiveness will be considered. Most types of forbearance won't count toward meeting these requirements. The administrative forbearance granted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an exception.
  • Forbearance can be granted for as little as 90 days, or up to 12 months or more. It depends on the reason for your forbearance and the types of loans you have.

Should You Stay in Automatic Forbearance?

Automatic forbearance can provide important student loan debt relief, kicking in when borrowers might not have the ability to start the process on their own, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's best for your situation.

It's always wise to keep up with—and stay on track with—your student loan payments if you can afford to do so. Sticking to your original, standard payments will help you get out of debt more quickly while avoiding extra interest charges. 

You should also compare forbearance with other student loan debt relief options, such as student loan deferment or an income-driven repayment plan. Find the best option for your specific situation.

“If a borrower learns that their account has been put into forbearance, but they do not want it in forbearance, they can call their servicer to ask that their loans be put back into repayment,” Taylor said.

You can also make payments during forbearance, which can be helpful if you can afford to at least make partial payments. Nothing says that you can't pay if you choose to.

The Bottom Line

Be sure to do your own research and contact your student loan servicer to discuss your eligibility before you take steps to apply or accept forbearance. Taylor suggested seeking a student loan lawyer to advise you and protect your interests if your situation is particularly complex.