When you co-sign a loan, the lender (known as the "creditor") must spell out your obligations in a co-signer's notice, which says:
- You are being asked to guarantee this debt. Think carefully before you do. If the borrower does not pay the debt, you will have to. Be sure you can afford to pay if you have to, and that you want to accept this responsibility.
- You may have to pay up to the full amount of the debt if the borrower does not pay. You may also have to pay late fees or collection costs, which increase this amount.
- The creditor can collect this debt from you without first trying to collect from the borrower*. The creditor can use the same collection methods against you that can be used against the borrower, including suing you or garnishing your wages. If this debt is ever in default, that fact may become a part of your credit record.
- This notice is not the contract that makes you liable for the debt.
Before You Co-sign
Despite the risks, there may be times when you want to co-sign. Your child may need a first loan, or a close friend may need help. Before you co-sign, consider how it might affect your financial well-being.
- Can you afford to pay the loan? If you're asked to pay and can't, you could be sued, or your credit rating could be damaged.
- Even if you're not asked to repay the debt, your liability for the loan may keep you from getting other credit. Creditors will consider the co-signed loan as one of your obligations.
- Before you pledge property to secure the loan, like your car, furniture or jewelry, make sure you understand the consequences. If the borrower defaults, you could lose these items.
- Ask the creditor to calculate the amount you might owe. The creditor doesn't have to do this, but might, if you ask. You also may be able to negotiate specific terms of your obligation. For example, you may want to limit your liability to the principal on the loan, and not include late charges, court costs, or attorneys' fees. In this case, ask the creditor to include a statement in the contract - like "The co-signer will be responsible only for the principal balance on this loan at the time of default." - before you cosign.
- Ask the creditor to agree, in writing, to notify you if the borrower misses a payment or the terms on the loan change. That will give you time to deal with the problem or make back payments without having to repay the entire amount immediately.
- If you're co-signing for a purchase, make sure you get copies of all important papers, like the loan contract, the Truth-in-Lending Disclosure Statement, and warranties. These documents may come in handy if there's a dispute between the borrower and the seller. The creditor doesn't have to give you these papers; you may have to get copies from the borrower.
- Check your state law for additional co-signer rights.