Considerations for Using Chapter 13 to Avoid Repossession of a Vehicle

July 18, 2013

Chapter 13 bankruptcy includes a provision to prevent all collection activities after a bankruptcy case is filed.  This provision is commonly called the “automatic stay”.  In the case of repossession, it means that a lender (Creditor) must stop all repossession activities IMMEDIATELY upon the filing of the bankruptcy case.  It even means that the vehicle cannot be sold to anyone else for a period of time AFTER repossession so long as the buyer (Debtor) still has some “interest” or some “right” to take the vehicle back.

These “interests” or “rights” may vary from state to state and; therefore, should be the subject of a whole separate discussion.  However, it does form the basis of one of the benefits of Chapter 13 bankruptcy.  The benefit is that the Debtor is usually able to get the vehicle back shortly after repossession if the bankruptcy case is filed during this period of time.  However, another issue to consider is that the Debtor is usually obligated to pay certain fees incurred by the Creditor as a result of having to repossess the vehicle if the Debtor intends to keep the vehicle.

Most importantly, the Debtor should compare the cost of saving the vehicle in bankruptcy versus the amount of money the Debtor actually has invested in the vehicle.  The cost of saving the vehicle should include the fees for the bankruptcy (both attorney fees and filing fees) as well as Trustee fees and additional interest that may be incurred by keeping the vehicle in bankruptcy.  Once again, bankruptcy fees vary but it is typical to expect approximately $3,000.00 in bankruptcy fees in Chapter 13.   In addition, Trustee fees are typically 7-10% of the value of the debt included in the bankruptcy plan.  Therefore, a vehicle that has a debt of $20,000.00 would cost as much as an additional $2,000.00 in Trustee fees.  It is easy to see from this example that a vehicle for which a debt of $20,000.00 is owed may not be worth saving; unless the vehicle is worth over $25,000.00.

However, the example above assumes that saving the vehicle from repossession is the only reason for filing the bankruptcy.  In most cases, the repossession or potential repossession of a vehicle may be only one of many reasons for filing the bankruptcy case.  Most consumers who have experienced financial difficulty that prevented them from making their vehicle payments are also having difficulty with other payments such as mortgage payments and/or credit card payments.  If the Debtor in this example has credit card debt of $5,000.00 or more and can eliminate some or all of it in bankruptcy, then it may still be a good alternative to seek bankruptcy protection.

Two common situations where it may not be advisable to save a vehicle from repossession in bankruptcy are where the vehicle is worth LESS than the debt that is owed on it, and where the Debtor is not able to make the vehicle payments at all.  Chapter 13 requires that the Debtor must commence making payments to the Trustee within 30 days of filing the bankruptcy case.  And because of the fees mentioned earlier in this blog, it is unlikely that the Trustee payment is going to be much less than what the vehicle payment was originally.  So if the Debtor is still without income or unable to make a monthly payment to the bankruptcy Trustee, then filing bankruptcy will probably not be a good alternative for saving the vehicle.

There is one exception to the situation where the vehicle is worth less than the debt that is owed on it.  In cases where the vehicle has been OWNED for more than 910 days, (approx 2.5 years) then it is possible to “cram down” the debt owed on the vehicle to the current value of the vehicle.  Determining the value of a vehicle in this situation can be difficult, but where it is clear that the value is less than the debt, there is a definite benefit to using Chapter 13 to save the vehicle.

Of course, every person’s financial situation is different and there may be other considerations for filing Chapter 13 besides the ones mentioned above. But if you are in danger of losing your vehicle to repossession you should speak to a bankruptcy professional and consider Chapter 13 as one of your alternatives.

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