What happens to an auto that is repossessed before, during or after a bankruptcy case? The answer will depend upon which type of bankruptcy or which chapter rather, that the debtor has filed. It also depends upon whether or not the debtor wants to recover the vehicle or simply let the vehicle go. The basic rule is as follows; the debtor remains the beneficial owner of the vehicle until such time that the vehicle is sold at auction. What this means is, the debtor has the ability to recover that vehicle and negotiate with the lender prior to the auto being sold at auction. This assumes of course that the debtor has filed a bankruptcy and that the automatic stay has gone into effect.
One typical case that I often see is a Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing where the vehicle is repossessed pre-filing. In that case, the auto finance company is often willing to negotiate for the return of the vehicle in exchange for certain documentation. That documentation usually includes proof of auto insurance and listing the finance company as the loss payee. In addition, the auto finance company will likely want to see a copy of the proposed chapter 13 plan indicating that the secured creditor is listed at the proper dollar amount at the proper interest rate. If all of those items could be shown, the auto lender is very likely to return the vehicle to the debtor without the debtor having to file an adversarial complaint in the bankruptcy court to recover the vehicle.
In a Chapter 7 case, whether not the debtor can recover the vehicle has to do with whether or not the debtor is current on the payments and/or can become current. If the debtor is behind on a vehicle in a Chapter 7 and the vehicle is repossessed pre-petition, the lender will simply bring a motion to modify the automatic stay, which will allow that lender to be able to keep the vehicle from the debtor. The debtor always has the ability to come up with the past due amount and become current to recover the vehicle, prior to the vehicle being sold at auction. The most important question that the Chapter 7 debtor needs to ask himself, is can I get current on that vehicle to the point where I can reaffirm the debt on that vehicle, continue to make monthly payments on time going forward, and maintain ownership of the vehicle. If the answer to any of those questions is, no, it really makes sense to surrender that vehicle back to the lender, because eventually the lender is going to move to modify the stay and repossess the vehicle down the road.
Additionally, if the debtor agrees to reaffirm the debt, and that it is subsequently repossessed post-petition, the debtor may in fact be on the hook for the rest of the balance or a deficiency on that vehicle unless the reaffirmation agreement can be rescinded in time.
Most people do not like to give up their autos. There is a pride factor, there is a love of the auto factor there is a transportation factor. The reality is this, if you cannot afford that vehicle, let it go. Do not reaffirm, do not stretch to fight to save the vehicle that you don’t have the ability to pay going forward. Maybe your economic circumstances have not changed since the bankruptcy filing. Maybe you really didn’t have the ability to afford that vehicle before the case was filed. These are all factors that a debtor must consider before agreeing to reaffirm a debt either under Chapter 7 or fighting to get the vehicle back and repaying it over time through a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case.
David M. Siegel is the author of Chapter 7 Success: The Complete Guide to Surviving Personal Bankruptcy. He is a member of the American Bankruptcy Institute and currently practices bankruptcy law in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. Additional information is available at http://www.bankruptcy-lawyers-sanantonio.com .