Law Office of Robert L. Firth
The Surprising Benefits: Saving Your Vehicle Through Bankruptcy
Bankruptcy can get you out of the dilemma that a vehicle loan can put you in. Chapter 7 works if you can afford the loan payments afterwards.
Here’s the Problem
You’re paying on a car or truck. You absolutely need this vehicle for getting to work, and to keep your life going. You can’t do without it.
But you’re having trouble keeping up on the loan payments. You owe lots of other debts, so keeping current on the vehicle loan is a big challenge. It’s a big stressor every month.
On top of that there’s a good chance that you owe more on your vehicle than it is worth. You know that if you somehow found other reliable transportation and surrendered your present vehicle—or if it was repossessed—you could easily still owe thousands of dollars of “deficiency balance.” That’s the amount you would owe on the loan after the surrender or repossession.
The amount you’d owe would very likely be much more than you expect. That’s because repossessed vehicles are usually sold at auto auctions, resulting in less credit to your account than you’d expect. Plus the costs of repossession/surrender and sale, and late charges and such would all be added to the balance. So giving up the vehicle doesn’t seem to make any sense.
As a result you feel stuck. You really need the vehicle but you can’t afford pay for it. And even if you could somehow do without it, you’d likely still owe thousands of dollars from letting it go.
Chapter 7 Regular Bankruptcy Gives Limited Help
Chapter 7 bankruptcy accomplishes two things regarding your vehicle loan. First, if you want to keep the vehicle, Chapter 7 would likely get rid of most of your other debts. Maybe then you could afford the vehicle payments. Or second, if you surrendered the vehicle, Chapter 7 would likely discharge (legally write off) the deficiency balance. If you had a way to get another reliable vehicle, or could do without, this might solve your problem.
What Chapter 7 doesn’t do is give you the power to change the terms of your vehicle loan. It’s “take it or leave it.” If you want to keep your vehicle, you’re virtually always stuck with the contract terms. That includes the monthly payment amount, the interest rate, etc.
Plus, you’re almost always required to “reaffirm” the debt. This legally excludes the vehicle loan from the discharge of your debts. You continue to owe it in full in exchange for keeping the vehicle.
This is economically risky. You’re paying for something that isn’t worth what you’re paying. And if you later surrender the vehicle or it’s repossessed, you would owe a deficiency balance. You’d owe it in spite of your prior Chapter 7 case because you reaffirmed the debt.
If You’re Behind on Your Vehicle Loan, or On Insurance
It’s worse if you aren’t current on your loan payments at the time of your Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Almost always your vehicle lender would require you to quickly catch up—within a month or two of filing. This would be on top of keeping current on the ongoing monthly payments. Or else you’d lose the vehicle in spite of filing bankruptcy.
If you’ve also let your insurance lapse, it’s even more problematic. Your lender knows how dangerous lack of insurance is for itself, so it would “force-place” insurance on your vehicle. Your contract almost certainly allows it to do this. Force-placed insurance tends to be very expensive while at the same time provides you very little coverage. Under Chapter 7 you would likely have to pay for any such insurance, plus reinstate your own insurance. And you’d likely have to do this very quickly, not long after filing your Chapter 7 case.
Chapter 13 Can Solve These Problems
Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” can solve these problems that Chapter 7 can’t.
First, Chapter 13 can buy you much more time. A Chapter 13 payment plan would likely give you much more time to catch up on any missed loan payments. It would also likely give you lots more time to pay for any force-placed insurance.
Second, if you qualify for “cramdown” you would likely pay less on the vehicle loan—possibly much less. Cramdown is an informal term for the Chapter 13 procedure for legally re-writing the loan in situations in which the vehicle is worth less than you owe. With cramdown you could both pay less monthly and pay less overall before the vehicle became yours free and clear. And if you’re behind on loan payments, you would not need to catch up at all on any of those missed payments.
Next week we’ll tell you how Chapter 13 could both buy you time and save you money on your vehicle loan(s).