Six years after the death of Christopher Bryski, a 23-year-old student at Rutgers University, Key Bank has agreed to forgive his student loan. But Bryski's family is not stopping there: It's now fighting to change the laws in the hope of sparing others the trauma it endured as lenders continued to hound it for payment on its dead son's debts.
Christopher Bysksi died on July 16, 2006, after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a fall that left him in a coma for two years.
Because his father had co-signed his student loan from Key Bank, he was obligated to continue to make payments under the terms of the private loan agreement. He paid more than $20,000 of the $50,000 debt, coming out of retirement to make the monthly payments, according to Ryan Bryski, 34, Christopher's brother.
But Ryan Bryski, an Air Force veteran, said various lenders continued to call the family and ask to speak to Christopher, despite the family informing them of, first, Christopher's vegetative state, and later, his death.
Bryski said the family lawyer sent "threatening letters" to two credit card companies to put an end to the continual postal mail, always addressed to Christopher, and phone calls requesting payment. Bryski said the credit card companies eventually forgave those debts. And Christopher's student loan from Sallie Mae was forgiven upon his death, according to the federal lender's policies.
But Key Bank, which held the private student loan, ignored requests to pardon the loan, Bryski said.
On April 18, the family started a petition on Change.org after the online petitioning platform contacted the Bryskis. With a petition signed by more than 81,000 individuals requesting to "discharge" the student loan debt, bank executives reached out to the family on April 23 and a settlement was reached on Wednesday, according to Megan Lubin, communications manager at Change.org. Change.org was also behind the petition that got Bank of America to cancel its proposed $5 debit card usage fee.
"My family is very grateful for Key Bank finally contacting us and doing the right thing," Bryski told ABC News. "It's just unfortunate it took eight years and 80,000 signatures to get their attention."
Gerri Detweiler, credit expert with Credit.com, said the Bryski family's story is a "very comon occurrence." In July 2011, the Federal Trade Commission released guidelines around debt collection for those who have died.
"But it is guidance, not law, and it does not cover creditors collecting their own debts, as they are not covered by the FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act)," she said.
The FDCPA of 1996 amended the Consumer Credit Protection Act to prohibit abusive practices by debt collectors.
Detweiler said of the proposals the FTC considered was a "cooling off period" after death before resuming collection accounts, but it didn't decide to implement that.
"That may need to be reconsidered," she said.
"First and foremost, we are so sorry for the tragic loss of Christopher Bryski," David Reavis, a spokesman for Key Bank, said in a statement.
The bank said that, by law, it could not comment on matters involving an individual client or clients, but that it "regularly and continually reviews its practices, policies and procedures to ensure they are aligned with best practices and a constantly changing environment.
"Going forward, we will evaluate any similar situation involving a deceased student with outstanding loans – and we sincerely hope there are none – on a case-by-case basis," the bank's statement read.
Though the family is relieved that its own ordeal has been resolved and a bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing more transparency for families who co-sign loans, Bryski is still hoping for change in other areas of death and disability policies of financial service companies. The family has also set up a website to provide updates about some of these issues.
"I asked myself what my brother would do. If he had the opportunity to help other people even if it didn't help him, he absolutely would. He was always helping others," said Bryski. "It's unfortunate that we lost him so young."