Bankruptcy saves your vehicle from immediate repossession. Whether you choose to file under Chapter 7 or 13 depends in part on how strong of a medicine you need for dealing with the back payments.
My last blog focused on ways in which Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy each make it possible for you to keep your vehicle by keeping your vehicle lender satisfied. But to be very practical, today let’s hone in on one very common scenario: you’ve fallen behind on your vehicle loan, but need to keep that vehicle. What are your options?
Saved by the Automatic Stay
As you probably already feel in your gut, you’ve got to accept right away that you are in a very precarious situation. Vehicle loans are very dangerous because of how quickly the collateral—your car or truck—can be repossessed. With a mortgage foreclosure you usually have a number of major warnings, stretching over months, sometimes over a year or more. Instead, with just about all vehicle loans, you get no warning. Once you’re in default—missed a monthly payment or let your insurance lapse—your vehicle could get repossessed at any time. Realistically, most repossessions do not happen until you’re about 2 months late. But that depends on your payment history, the overall aggressiveness of the creditor, and, frankly, how the repo manager happens to be feeling that day. If you’re not current, you’re in danger.
Once a repossession happens, that does not always mean that your vehicle is gone for good. But in many situations that IS the practical result. To get a vehicle back after a repo usually takes serious money. Money you don’t likely have hanging around if you’re behind on your car payments.
And once the repo happens, thing’s often just get worse—your vehicle is sold at an auction, and you often end up owing thousands of dollars for the “deficiency balance,” the difference between what the vehicle was auctioned off for and the amount you owed on the loan (plus repo and sale costs). Next thing you know, you’re being sued for those thousands of dollars.
All that is preventable, IF you file either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy BEFORE the repossession. The “automatic stay”— a legal injunction against repossession—goes into effect instantaneously upon the filing of bankruptcy. Even if the repo man is already looking for your vehicle to repo, once you file that gets you off his list. At least for the moment.
Dealing with Missed Payments under Chapter 7
As stated in the last blog, most vehicle lenders play a “take it or leave it” game if you file a Chapter 7 case. If you want to keep the vehicle, you must bring the loan current quickly—usually within about two months after filing. Unless your lender is one of the relatively few that are more flexible, you need to figure out if not paying your other creditors is going to free up enough cash to catch up on your missed payments within that short time. If not, the lender will have the right to repossess your vehicle if you are not current the minute the Chapter 7 case is completed, usually about 3 months after it is filed. In fact, you may have even less time if the lender asks the bankruptcy court for permission to repossess earlier.
Dealing with Missed Payments under Chapter 13
You have much more flexibility about missed payments under Chapter 13. In fact, you do not need to catch up on them at all.
There are two scenarios, alluded to in the last blog.
If your vehicle is worth at least as much as your loan balance OR if you entered into your vehicle loan two and a half years or less before filing the case, than you will have to pay the entire loan off within the 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 plan period. Depending on the amount of the loan balance, that may or may not mean a reduction in monthly payments. Sometimes it could even mean an increase in payments.
If your vehicle is worth less than your loan balance AND you entered into your vehicle loan more than two and a half years before filing the case, then you can reduce the total amount to be paid down to the value of the vehicle. With this so-called “cramdown,” you still must pay that reduced amount within the life of the Chapter 13 plan. And you may need to pay a portion of the remaining balance, primarily based on whether you have extra money in your budget to do so. But the savings in terms of both the monthly payments and the total amount to be paid are often huge.
Bankruptcy stops your vehicle from being repossessed, and gives you options for dealing with previously missed payments. Chapter 7 may work if you can pay off the entire arrearage fast enough. Otherwise you may need the extra help Chapter 13 provides. Or you might want to file Chapter 13 to take advantage of the “cramdown” option if that applies to you, after also weighing all the other considerations between Chapter 7 and 13.