Your car or truck loan may be the most important debt you have. Chapter 7 puts you in the driver seat for dealing with this debt.
As I said in the last blog, when you think about secured debts—those tied to collateral like a vehicle—it helps to look at these kinds of debts as two deals in one. You made a commitment to repay some money lent to you, and then agreed to back up that commitment by giving the creditor certain rights to your collateral.
The first deal—to repay the money—can almost always be discharged (legally erased) in bankruptcy. But the second deal—the rights you gave up in the collateral, here a lien on the vehicle title—is not affected by your bankruptcy. So, you can wipe out the debt, but the creditor remains on the title and can get your vehicle. Your options in Chapter 7, and the creditor’s, are tied to these two realities.
Keep or Surrender?
As long as you file your Chapter 7 case before your vehicle gets repossessed, the ball starts in your court about whether to keep or surrender it.
Surrender the Vehicle
In most situations, if you want to surrender the vehicle, then doing so in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the place to do it. That’s because in the vast majority of vehicle loans, you would still owe part of the debt after the surrender—the so-called “deficiency balance”—often a shockingly large amount. That’s because you usually owe more than the vehicle is worth, but also because the contract allows the creditor to charge you all of its costs of repossession and resale. Surrendering your vehicle during your Chapter 7 case allows you to discharge the entire debt and not be on the hook for any of those costs.
To be thorough, there is a theoretical possibility that the vehicle loan creditor could challenge your discharge of the “deficiency balance,” based on fraud or misrepresentation when you entered into the loan. These are rare, and especially so with vehicle loans.
Whether or not you are current on the loan payments does not matter if you are surrendering the vehicle. But if you want to keep it, whether you are current, and if not how far behind you are, can make all the difference.
Keep the Vehicle When Current
As you can guess, it’s simplest if you are current. Then you would just keep making the payments on time, and would usually sign a “reaffirmation agreement” to exclude the vehicle loan from the discharge of debts at the end of your Chapter 7 case.
Most conventional vehicle loan creditors insist on you signing a reaffirmation agreement, at the full balance of the loan—it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you want to keep the car or truck, you need to “reaffirm” the original debt, even if by this time the debt is larger than the value of the vehicle. This can be dangerous because if you fail to keep up the payments later, you could still end up with a repossession and a hefty remaining balance owed—AFTER having passed up on the opportunity to discharge this debt earlier in your bankruptcy case. So be sure to understand this clearly before reaffirming, especially if the balance is already more than the vehicle is worth.
Some creditors—more likely smaller, local lenders—may be willing to allow you to reaffirm for less than the full balance, so that the creditor avoids taking an even bigger loss if you surrender the vehicle. Talk to your attorney whether this is a possibility in your situation.
Keep the Vehicle When Not Current
If you are not current on the vehicle loan at the time your Chapter 7 case is filed, most of the time you will have to get current quickly to be able to keep the vehicle—usually within a month or two. That’s in part because for a “reaffirmation agreement” to be enforceable, it must be filed at the bankruptcy court before the discharge order is entered. Since that happens usually about three months after the case is filed, the creditor needs to decide quickly whether you will be able to catch up on the payments and reaffirm the debt.
Again, certain vehicle creditors may be more flexible, perhaps letting you skip some earlier missed payments, or giving you more time to cure the arrearage. Your attorney will know whether these may apply to your creditor.
Stronger Medicine through Chapter 13
But what if you are behind on your payments more than you can catch up within a month or two after filing? If you have decided that you really need to keep the car or truck, discuss the Chapter 13 option with your attorney. Depending on various factors, you may not only have more time to pay the arrearage, you may also reduce your monthly payments, the interest rate, and the total amount to be paid on the debt. The next blog will get into this Chapter 13 option.