Keeping Your Wheels in Bankruptcy
Under Chapter 7, you can pay your vehicle loan mostly by getting rid of all or most of your other debts. Under Chapter 13, you can pay your vehicle loan ahead of most of your other creditors.
Bankruptcy law is all about balancing the rights of debtors and creditors. When you file bankruptcy you gain a lot of leverage against your creditors. But exactly how much leverage depends on the kind of debt and certain crucial details about it. With a vehicle loan, you get much less leverage than with some other types of debts because the lender has a right to its collateral–your car or truck. But if you want to keep your vehicle, you can often use the lender’s rights over your collateral to your advantage.
That’s because bankruptcy is also about sorting out the rights of the creditors among themselves. So if you WANT to keep your vehicle, you are able to favor that vehicle lender over most of your other creditors.
Let’s see how this works under Chapter 7 and then under Chapter 13.
Favoring your vehicle loan in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy”
Between you and the vehicle lender, your leverage is that you have the right to simply surrender your vehicle to the creditor and pay nothing. The bankruptcy discharges (writes off) any remaining debt. Usually the lender does not get paid enough from selling the vehicle to cover the full balance on the debt—especially after accounting for the costs of repossession and resale. Rarely the vehicle is worth more than the loan balance, such as towards the very end of a loan term, when the balance is low and the vehicle has retained some value. But, most of the time a vehicle depreciates faster than the balance goes down. So the lender usually loses money on a surrender.
This means that sometimes we can use the threat of surrender to improve the vehicle loan’s terms, maybe even reduce the balance to an amount closer to the current fair market value of the vehicle.
But unfortunately, most major vehicle lenders don’t see it that way. They made a decision at some point that they make more money by requiring all their Chapter 7 customers to pay the full balance on the vehicle loans, and then take losses on those who aren’t willing to do that and instead surrender their vehicles. Talk with your attorney about whether your creditor is one which will require you to stick to the contract terms, or instead one who might be more flexible.
As between your vehicle lender and your other creditors, in a Chapter 7 case you will likely be able to discharge the debts of most or even all those other creditors. The vehicle lender has leverage—its lienholder rights against the vehicle that you want to keep—greater than most of your other creditors. With the exception of other creditors which have other collateral you want to keep, and those relatively few creditors whose debts aren’t discharged in bankruptcy, during and after filing the Chapter 7 case you will be able to focus all of your financial energy on paying the vehicle loan.
Favoring your vehicle loan in a Chapter 13 “payment plan”
Between you and the vehicle lender, your leverage is both lesser and greater under Chapter 13 than under Chapter 7.
You have less leverage in threatening surrender if your Chapter 13 plan is paying anything to your unsecured creditors. That’s because the vehicle lender would recoup from you at least some of its losses upon surrender, instead of none.
And if your vehicle loan is two and a half years old or less, if you want to keep the vehicle you must pay the full balance of the loan, regardless of the value of the vehicle compared to the loan balance.
But you have more leverage in two ways. With any vehicle loan, including those two and a half years old or less, you do not have to cure any arrearage, and can change the monthly payment, as long as the balance is paid in full by the end of the case.
And if the loan is more than two and a half years old, you can do a “cramdown”—reduce the amount you pay to the fair market value of the vehicle, plus whatever percentage you’re paying to the pool of unsecured debt, if any.
As between your vehicle lender and your other creditors, in a Chapter 13 case if you want to keep the vehicle and you follow the above rules, most of your other creditors generally can’t object to how much you’re paying for the vehicle instead of to them. Other creditors secured by other collateral have their own rights to their collateral, and whatever payments arise from that. And “priority” creditors are generally entitled to be paid in full. And there are other rules you must follow in Chapter 13. But unless the vehicle you want to keep is unreasonably expensive, or is an unnecessary extra vehicle, you will be allowed to make the required payments so that you can keep it.