Can I Keep My Vehicle During Chapter 7 Bankruptcy?

April 8, 2011

One of the most serious questions a client may ask is, “If I file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, can I keep my vehicle?” Like many simple, straight-forward legal questions, there are no simple, straight-forward legal answers. However, while each case is different, the vast majority of bankruptcy debtors keep their vehicles during Chapter 7.

Keeping a vehicle during Chapter 7 bankruptcy starts with a simple accounting: is the fair market value of the vehicle more than the amount owed on the loan? In other words, does the debtor have equity in the vehicle? If there is no equity in the vehicle, the Chapter 7 trustee cannot take and sell it since there is no benefit to the unsecured creditors.

On the other hand, if there is vehicle equity, that equity must be protected otherwise the trustee can take and sell the vehicle to reach the unprotected equity. The vehicle’s equity may be protected by one or more legal exemptions. The total amount of exemptions available to a debtor is determined by state and/or federal law and varies from state to state, and case to case. In some cases the ownership of the vehicle may protect the vehicle’s equity, such as in cases of joint ownership with a non-filing party.

If the vehicle has unprotected, non-exempt equity, the debtor has a few options. First, instead of taking and selling the vehicle, the trustee may accept a cash payment. Generally this cash payment is less than the amount of available equity, because there are actual costs involved in selling the vehicle. Second, the debtor may consider a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. A payment equal to the amount of non-exempt equity must be paid to the debtor’s unsecured creditors during the Chapter 13 plan, but this payment is stretched over 36-60 months. Third, the debtor may choose to allow the trustee to sell the vehicle. Any claimed exemption will be paid to the debtor from the proceeds of the sale. Finally, the debtor may choose to trade or sell the vehicle prior to bankruptcy and use any proceeds for necessary household expenses.

The truth is that it is rather unusual for a debtor to have a vehicle equity issue during Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If you have a vehicle with a great deal of equity, your bankruptcy attorney can discuss your options for keeping your vehicle and protecting your equity. 

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