Keeping Vehicles That You Owe On in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

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Keeping Vehicles That You Owe On in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Chapter 7 is the take-it-or-leave-it bankruptcy when it comes to your vehicle with a loan against it. In most cases you either keep on making the payments or you surrender the vehicle, nothing much in between.

To be clear I’m talking here about a vehicle that you owe on, with the lender as a lienholder on your vehicle title, and with no more equity (value beyond the debt) than is covered by your available vehicle exemption. In other words, this is not a vehicle that your Chapter 7 trustee is going to be interested in, either because it has no equity—it’s worth less than the debt against it—or the amount of equity is protected by the exemption.

But if your trustee wont’ be interested, your vehicle creditor will be very interested, in the vehicle and in your bankruptcy.

So back to the take-it-or-leave-it part. Here are the two straightforward choices.

First, even f you don’t want to or need to keep your vehicle, you can surrender it to your creditor after your bankruptcy is filed. (Or you can surrender it before you file, but that gets risky—be sure you have talked to your bankruptcy attorney and have a clear game plan beforehand.) You likely know that if you just surrendered your vehicle without a bankruptcy, you’ll very likely owe and be sued for the “deficiency balance”—the amount you would owe after your vehicle is sold, its sale price is credited to your account, and all the repo and other costs are added. (You can usually count on that deficiency balance to be shockingly high.) The bankruptcy will write off that deficiency balance, which could well be one of the reasons you decided to file bankruptcy.

Second, if you want to keep your vehicle, in most cases you have to be current on your loan, or quite quickly get current. You will almost for sure be required to sign a reaffirmation agreement legally excluding the vehicle loan from the discharge (the legal write-off) of the rest of your debts. And you have to sign that reaffirmation agreement and get it filed at the bankruptcy court within quite a short period of time—usually within 60 days after your bankruptcy hearing. Then you have to stay current if you want to keep the car, just as if you had not filed a bankruptcy. And also just as if you had not filed bankruptcy, if that vehicle later gets repossessed or surrendered, you could very well be hit with a deficiency balance.

When I say take-it-or-leave-it, I mean there usually aren’t any other more flexible options. Almost always—especially with conventional, national vehicle loan creditors—you are stuck with the terms of your original loan contract—no reducing the balance of the loan or the interest rate. If you’re behind, almost always you must pay up the arrearage and be current within a month or two. There can be exceptions, especially with local finance companies and other smaller players who would rather minimize their losses by being flexible. So be sure to ask your attorney whether your vehicle creditor has that kind of history. And if you do need more flexibility—if you must hang onto your vehicle, and owe more than it is worth, and you can’t afford the payments—ask about Chapter 13 as a possible solution to your dilemma.

In general, “straight bankruptcy”—Chapter 7—can be the best way to go if your vehicle situation is pretty straightforward: you either want to surrender a vehicle, or else you want to hang onto it and are current or can get current within a month or two of your bankruptcy filing.

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