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Archive for the ‘vehicle repossession’ tag

The Surprising Benefits: Ending Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 13

October 24th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 gets you out of a vehicle lease owing nothing. Chapter 13 is more complicated but can give you pretty much the same good result.

 

Ending a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 7

Our last blog post was about how a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” can get you out of a vehicle lease. You can “reject” a financially bad lease, and then discharge (permanently write off) whatever you’d owe after surrendering the vehicle. Otherwise you could owe a lot of money when you get out of the lease.

So if you decide that you don’t want to keep your leased vehicle, and need bankruptcy relief, Chapter 7 is likely the cleanest solution.

Ending a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 13

But what if you have other reasons to file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case instead? Chapter 13 can be a great way to save your home, catch up on child or spousal support, deal with income tax debt, and solve many other big financial problems, much better than under Chapter 7.

So it’s good news that you can surrender your leased vehicle through Chapter 13 just like under Chapter 7. However, discharging any resulting debt from the lease contract is not as straightforward as in a Chapter 7 case. Here’s how it works.

Possible Debts from Surrendering a Leased Vehicle

First be aware that you could owe various kinds of debts when you surrender a leased vehicle. Surrendering before lease end could make you liable for contractual penalties and/or all the remaining unpaid lease payments. Surrendering the vehicle at the end of the lease could make you liable for high mileage, excessive wear and tear, and the difference between the vehicle’s originally anticipated value at the end of the lease and the actual “realized value” then. Either way the amount you would owe could be thousands of dollars.  

Rejecting the Lease under Chapter 13

Under Chapter 13 you have the options of either rejecting the lease and returning the car, or continuing the lease. For today we’re assuming you no longer need or want to keep and pay for the vehicle.

The immediate benefits of rejecting the lease are just like under Chapter 7. You immediately stop paying the monthly lease payments, and then return the vehicle to the lessor after filing the case. If you’re behind on payments, you don’t have to pay them.

But under Chapter 13 there’s a complication. Your lessor can file a “proof of claim” reflecting whatever amount you would owe under the lease contract. The lessor does so in order to try to get paid part of any remaining debt. This debt is then added to the pile of all your other “general unsecured” debts.

The Category of “General Unsecured” Debts in Chapter 13

In a Chapter 13 case, your debts are divided into categories, one being your “general unsecured” debts. These are the debts that are 1) not secured by any of your property or possessions, and are also 2) not a “priority” debt (various specially-treated ones).

Often you have to pay all or most of what you owe on your secured and priority debts. But this is seldom true with general unsecured debts. Often you pay little or even nothing on your general unsecured debts in a Chapter 13 case. Whether or how much you pay depends on a lot of factors. The main factors are the amount of your secured and priority debts, and how much you can afford to pay to all of your creditors after expenses.

Often Vehicle Lease Debt Does Not Increase What You Pay

In most Chapter 13 cases a debt from surrendering your leased vehicle does not increase what pay in your case. That is, adding what you owe on the lease to your other general unsecured debts does not increase the amount that you pay into your pool of general unsecured debts.

There are two circumstances where that happens, one less common and other very common.

First, in some parts of the country you are allowed to pay 0% of your “general unsecured” debts. This happens if all you can afford to pay during your 3-to-5-year payment plan goes to your secured and priority debts. This leaves no money for the general unsecured debts. Paying 0% of the general unsecured debts means paying 0% on any vehicle lease debt.

Second, in most situations you end up paying the pool of general unsecured debts a specific amount of money. That amount is what you can afford to pay through the plan minus what goes to secured and priority debts. That specific amount gets divided up among the general unsecured debts. This amount being paid to the general unsecured debts does not increase if there is more of those debts. Adding the debt from the surrendered leased vehicle just reduces the amount other general unsecured debts receive. It does not increase how much you pay.  

For example, assume that after you pay all your secured and priority debts you have $2,000 left over to pay all your general unsecured debts over the life of your Chapter 13 plan. Your vehicle lessor files a claim saying you owe $3,000 after surrendering the vehicle. You owe $30,000 to all your other general unsecured debts. Adding the $3,000 lease debt to the other $30,000 means you owe a total of $33,000 of general unsecured debts. But you pay only the $2,000 that is available (over the life of the plan) either way. Having the $3,000 lease debt just means that the other general unsecured debts receive that much less.

 

The Surprising Benefits: An Example of Vehicle Loan Cramdown

October 1st, 2018 at 7:00 am

Vehicle loan cramdown can greatly reduce your monthly payment and the total amount you pay on your loan. Here’s a helpful example.

 

Cramdown in Chapter 13

Last week we introduced cramdown as an extremely helpful tool for reducing the cost of your vehicle loan. Cramdown can often:

  1. Reduce your monthly payments—sometimes significantly.
  2. Reduce the amount you pay on your vehicle contract altogether—often by thousands of dollars.
  3. Excuse you from catching up on any back payments on your vehicle.

Here’s an example to illustrate just how good cramdown can be.

The Facts in Our Example

Assume you are making payments on a 2015 Ford Fusion SE that you bought new more than three years ago. You bought from a dealer for $27,000. After adding the various fees and taxes, and subtracting your modest down payment, you financed $27,000. Because your credit was iffy your loan was at the high interest rate of 8.9% on a 84-month loan.

The monthly payment of $433 has been tough to keep up on. You’re now a month late and your next payment is due in a week. You know that you’re close to getting your vehicle repossessed.

After 34 monthly payments of $433 you’d normally owe about $18,000 but with a bunch of late fees and other charges you owe around $19,000. Your vehicle is currently worth $13,000, with 55,000 miles (average for a 2015 vehicle).

Under Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy”

If you filed a Chapter 7 case you’d basically have a choice between keeping the car with its present loan terms or surrendering it and writing off the loan.

Assuming that you absolutely need the transportation, you’d have to “reaffirm” the loan. That means that you’d have to catch up on the missed payments and agree to keep it current. You’d be stuck with the current monthly payment amount. You’d be stuck with the high interest rate (costing you more than $9,000 over the length of the contract). If you ever failed to keep current and the vehicle got repossessed, you’d likely owe a large “deficiency balance.” And your vehicle would be gone.

Savings through Cramdown

In contrast, under Chapter 13 cramdown both your monthly payment and the total amount paid would be reduced.

In our example, you and your bankruptcy lawyer reduce the monthly payment as follows. The $19,000 balance on the contract gets divided into the secured and unsecured portions.

The secured portion is based on the current value of the vehicle: $13,000. You have 3 to 5 years to pay that amount. Depending on all the circumstances you should be able to reduce the interest rate—assume down to 4%. $13,000 amortized at 4% over the maximum 60 months works out to only about $239 per month.

What about the Unsecured Part of the Vehicle Loan?

What happens to the remaining unsecured portion in the amount of $6,000? (That’s the $19,000 current loan balance minus the above $13,000 secured portion.) It gets lumped into the pool of your other “general unsecured” debts. So what happens to that $6,000 debt?

It depends. In most situations you effectively pay nothing more during your Chapter 13 case as a result of this $6,000 debt. This would happen for two potential reasons.

0% Chapter 13 Plans

First, after paying allowed living expenses and higher priority debt—including the monthly $239 vehicle payments, and also recent income taxes, home mortgage and support arrearage, and such—you may have nothing left over for the general unsecured debts. Under these circumstances you’d be paying 0% on these debts during your Chapter 13 payment plan. Then at the end of the 3-to-5-year plan those general unsecured debts would be discharged—completely written off. This would include the $6,000 unsecured part of the vehicle loan. You’d pay nothing on it (and still keep your vehicle).

Partial Payment Chapter 13 Plans

Second, you may instead have some money during your plan to pay towards your general unsecured debts. But even then, in most Chapter 13 cases the existence of the unsecured part of your vehicle loan does not increase how much you pay into your plan over the life of the plan.

Let’s add a few more facts to our example. Assume that you have $40,000 in other general unsecured debts (credit cards, medical bills, old income taxes, and such). Add the $6,000 unsecured part of your vehicle loan, for a total of $46,000 of general unsecured debts. Assume also that over the course of your Chapter 13 plan you have disposable income (after allowed expenses and higher priority debts) totaling $4,000. You pay that $4,000 over time through your monthly plan payments.

If you didn’t owe the $6,000 unsecured part of your vehicle loan, that $4,000 would result in you paying 10% of your general unsecured debts ($4,000 out of $40,000 owed). When you include the $6,000 unsecured part, the $4,000 paid would result in you paying about 8.7% of your general unsecured debts ($4,000 out of $46,000 owed). But either way you’re paying what you can afford to pay—$4,000 over the life of your case. The existence of the $6,000 unsecured part of the vehicle loan has no effect on how much you pay. What you pay just gets distributed a little differently. The other general unsecured debts get pay a little less so that the $6,000 debt receives a small part of the $4,000.

Most Plans Do Not Pay More Resulting from the Unsecured Part of the Vehicle Loan

This happens in most cases that are not 0% plans (discussed above). The only way that an unsecured part of a vehicle loan would increase the amount you pay in your plan is if you have disposable income larger than your other general unsecured debts. In the example, you’d have to have more than $40,000 of disposable income during your plan. Only then would the addition of the $6,000 unsecured part of your vehicle loan to the general unsecured pool increase what you’d pay. That situation is rare. Most people don’t have disposable income during their case larger than their non-vehicle general unsecured debts.

Qualifying for Cramdown

Remember that cramdown is only available in Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” Not Chapter 7. Also, to qualify the vehicle loan must be at least 910 days old (about 2 and a half years) when filing the Chapter 13 case.  And finally, cramdown is beneficial for most purposes only when the vehicle is worth less than the balance on the loan. The more it’s worth less, the greater the likely benefit of the cramdown.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Getting Back Your Repossessed Vehicle

May 28th, 2018 at 7:00 am

It’s much easier to prevent repossession by filing bankruptcy beforehand. But if you’ve already been repo’d, you now have to act very fast. 

 

When Does a Lender Repossess a Vehicle?

When CAN a vehicle lender repossess your vehicle? Just about all vehicle loan contracts let the lender repossess the minute you are late on a payment. There may be a legal grace period, but not usually. This is also true for other breaches of the contract, such as if you let the vehicle insurance lapse.  So usually a lender can repossess, without warning, when you are not in fully compliance with any contract obligations.

But most lenders don’t repossess right away. They’d usually rather have you make the payments so that they earn the interest on the contract. But they have the legal right to repossess, and sometimes act very fast.

So how much time do you have before your lender would actually repossess? That depends on your payment history and the repossession practices of the lender. It’s truly hard to tell how many days you  can be late, or how long your insurance can be lapsed, before repossession.

Much Better to File BEFORE Repossession

Filing bankruptcy stops repossession from happening immediately. It literally stops the repo agent from taking your vehicle even if he or she has already started to do so.

The moment your bankruptcy lawyer electronically files your case the “automatic stay” goes into effect. This “stays,” or legally stops, virtually all collection efforts against you and your property. Specifically, filing bankruptcy stops the enforcement of lender’s liens against your property. A vehicle repossession is an enforcement of a lender’s lien on your vehicle, and so it is stopped. See Subsections 362(a)(4) and (5) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the “stay… of… any act to… enforce any lien” against your property.                                                                                                          

Filing a Chapter 7 vs. 13 Case to Stop Repossession

A Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” will stop a pending repossession. It will give you a bit of time to bring your loan current. Usually you’ll have no more than about 2 months, sometime less, seldom more. If your insurance has lapsed you’ll have to reinstate it pretty much right away.

Stopping repossession by filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” gives you lots more time to catch up on the late payments. Instead of a couple months under Chapter 7, under Chapter 13 you get as much as a few years to catch up. Also you may qualify for “cramdown” of the vehicle loan. If so, after stopping the repo you may not need to catch up at all. Plus you may be able to reduce your monthly payments and pay less overall for the vehicle than you would have under the contract. “Cramdown” is not available in Chapter 7. But even under Chapter 13, you still need to pay to reinstate any lapsed insurance quickly to be able to keep your vehicle.

Getting Back Possession AFTER Repossession

Whether you can get your vehicle back after it’s already been repossessed depends on timing and the bankruptcy Chapter you file under.

As for timing, you DO have to act fast. Otherwise it will be too late to get it back, even through bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” stops the lender, at least temporarily, from taking the next steps after the repossession. That’s because those next steps are at least arguably part of the lender’s enforcing its lien on the vehicle, which bankruptcy stops. This may depend on your state’s laws and local interpretations of bankruptcy law. Your bankruptcy lawyer will talk with you about this in your conversation about the repossession.

The next steps after repossession usually involve selling the vehicle, often in an auto auction. Once your lender sells the vehicle, it’s too late to get back your vehicle through bankruptcy.

Chapter 7 vs. 13 in Getting Back Possession

Assuming you file fast enough, whether you actually getting your vehicle back often depends on whether you file under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.

A Chapter 7 case will work only if you have a fair amount of money immediately available. You’d have to pay the repossession costs (of likely hundreds of dollars) plus bring the account fully current. If you’re not current on insurance you’ll also have to pay to reinstate it.

Even all that may not be enough. If your lender still doesn’t want to cooperate, it may be able to avoid giving back your vehicle.  Whether or not it can be forced to depends on how your local bankruptcy court interprets the law.

Filing Chapter 13 is much more likely to be effective. That’s because it provides a legal mechanism for you to catch up on the back payments over a much longer period of time. This is done through monthly payments in your court-approved Chapter 13 plan. You will still likely have to pay the repossession costs up front. Plus you’ll have to be current on insurance. Then if your plan shows that you’ll catch up on the back payments, most lenders will voluntarily return your vehicle. If not, the bankruptcy court would likely order the lender to do so.

 

Chapter 7 vs. 13 When Your Vehicle is Worth Too Much

January 19th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Usually your car or truck is protected in bankruptcy with a vehicle exemption. Or if the vehicle is worth too much Chapter 13 can protect it.  

 

How Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 affect your vehicle and vehicle loan can determine which of these options you choose. That’s why we’ve focused the last several blog posts on the differences between these options. We’ve especially looked at reaffirming a vehicle loan in Chapter 7 vs. cramming it down in Chapter 13. Depending on your circumstances one of these is likely a safer and/or less expensive way to keep your vehicle.

But there is another consideration we don’t want to lose sight of. What if you have too much value in your car or truck? What if you either own it free and clear or else it has lots of equity? What if you’re not worried about your lender but rather with the bankruptcy trustee taking your car or truck?

Exemption for Your Vehicle

Why would a bankruptcy trustee be interested taking your vehicle?

Actually, most of the time the trustee wouldn’t be. You are allowed to keep a certain amounts of value or equity in your possessions when filing bankruptcy. These allowances are called “exemptions.” Each state has different exemption amounts for different possession or asset categories. Often their exemption systems are quite different, not just in the amounts protected but also in how they work otherwise. 

With vehicles, often you are allowed a certain exempt dollar amount per vehicle. But in some states there’s a larger catch-all exemption category that your vehicle(s) can fit into along with other assets. Sometimes that catch-all amount changes depending on whether you are exempting your home. The bottom line is usually there’s no problem because your vehicle(s) is (are) fully exempt.

A bankruptcy trustee is only interested in taking your vehicle if it’s worth more than the allowed exempt amount. Or sometimes a vehicle will not qualify for the exemption so it’s not protected at all—such as if you have more than one vehicle.

Vehicle Value or Equity

To be practical, if you owe on your vehicle most likely you don’t have too much equity in it. The part you owe on the vehicle doesn’t count. It’s subtracted from the value. If you owe $10,000 on a vehicle worth $13,500, and you have a $4,000 exemption, you’re fine. Subtract the $10,000 you owe, which leaves $3,500 of equity, which is more than covered by the allowed $4,000 exemption.

Be careful if you are close to paying off your car or truck. You’re then more likely to have too much equity.

Also make sure the debt against your vehicle is a legally valid one. Your creditor must have a “perfected security interest” on your vehicle. This means that it went through all the necessary legal steps to put a legally enforceable lien on your vehicle. Otherwise the debt does not count against the value of your vehicle. That puts it at greater risk that it’s not fully exempt.

Similarly, you need to be careful if the lien was placed on your vehicle too recently. Problems can also arise if the lien was placed too long after you incurred the loan. Under certain such circumstances the bankruptcy trustee can remove a lien from the vehicle. That could mean that the vehicle has more equity than the exemption can protect.

Chapter 7 vs. 13 If Too Much Value or Equity

Whenever your vehicle(s) has (have) too much value or equity, you can protect that otherwise non-exempt portion through Chapter 13. Sometimes you can protect it in a Chapter 7 case, too, but it’s riskier.

Here’s how these work.

Starting with Chapter 7, let’s assume your vehicle is worth $1,500 too much. Say it’s worth $5,500 and the applicable exemption is $4,000, leaving $1,500 unprotected. In a Chapter 7 case the trustee could take that vehicle, sell it, pay you the $4,000 exempt portion and use the remaining $1,500 to pay your creditors. 

But in many situations a Chapter 7 trustee would consider not taking such a vehicle but instead negotiating with you. If you agreed to pay that same $1,500 that the trustee would get, you could keep the vehicle.  You’re saving the trustee the hassle of selling your vehicle while he or she distributes the same amount of money to your creditors. It’s not unusual for trustees to even accept monthly payments. The agreed amount does need to be paid off relatively quickly, usually within several months.

If the unprotected amount is too large for you to pay quickly, then Chapter 13 gives you much more time. Let’s now assume that the vehicle is worth $5,000 too much. Say it’s worth $9,000, the applicable exemption is $4,000, leaving the difference, $5,000, unprotected. (Remember again that your state’s vehicle exemption amount will likely be different.)

You and your bankruptcy lawyer simply have to structure your Chapter 13 plan to pay an extra $5,000 over its 3-to-5-year span. Paying for that unprotected value or equity in your vehicle is spread out over that multi-year period. Also, sometimes you’re not actually paying more than you would have otherwise. That’s if some or all of that $5,000 is going to pay special debts like income taxes that you had to pay anyway.

So, with Chapter 13 you can spread your protection payments over a much longer period of time. And sometimes the extra protection money you pay goes to pay debts you’d have to pay anyway.

 

Cramdown on Vehicle Not Bought for Personal Use

January 17th, 2018 at 8:00 am

The 910-day condition for doing a vehicle debt cramdown don’t apply if the vehicle was not “acquired for the personal use of the debtor.”  

The Cramdown Advantage

The last several blog posts have been about the advantages of Chapter 13 cramdown, especially the cramdown of vehicle loans. Cramdown can be an excellent way to keep your vehicle. It usually allows you to reduce the monthly payment as well as the total you pay on the debt. Often the payment reduction is significant. You can often save thousands of dollars compared to what you’d usually pay on the debt overall.  Through cramdown you may be able to keep a car or truck that you couldn’t afford to otherwise.

Because of these advantages vehicle loan cramdown may be a reason to file a Chapter 13 case. It’s not available under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”

The 910-Day Condition on “Personal Use” Purchases

As we said in a blog post last week, there is usually a timing condition you need to meet to do a vehicle loan cramdown. In most consumer bankruptcy situations you must have entered into the contract more than 910 days (about two and half years) before filing the Chapter 13 case. So if you bought and financed a vehicle more recently you wouldn’t be able to do a cramdown.

But that only applies when “the collateral for that debt consists of a motor vehicle… acquired for the personal use of the debtor.” (See the unnumbered “hanging paragraph” right after Section 1325(a)(9) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)  So if your vehicle was acquired for business use, or some other non-personal use, the 910-day condition does not apply. You could do a cramdown on the loan in a Chapter 13 case filed at any time.

An Example

Imagine that eighteen months ago you bought a truck for a business that’s in your name. You financed the entire $50,000 purchase. The truck is now worth $32,500.

Your business has just failed and you need to file bankruptcy. You need to keep the truck because you sold your other vehicle to try to keep the business going.

On the advice of your bankruptcy lawyer you are filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case.  There are other reasons to do so having to do with income tax debts. But you also learn you can do a cramdown on this truck loan and save money. You can do so even though you’re still a year short of the 910 days (about two and half years) since getting the loan.

Again, that’s because that 910-day condition would only apply if the truck was bought for “personal use.” If it was clearly bought for the business, you can do a cramdown without waiting the 910 day from the purchase to the Chapter 13 filing. (Your lawyer will review the loan documents to make sure they don’t indicate the purchase was for personal use.)

As a result your truck loan would effectively be rewritten based on the $32,500 current truck value. You would very likely be able to reduce the monthly payment on the loan. You would also very likely be able to pay thousands of dollars less overall before you owned the truck free and clear. Finally, besides saving you money immediately and long-term, it may enable you to keep the vehicle when you could not afford to do so otherwise.

 

Examples of Reaffirmation Agreement vs. Chapter 13

January 5th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Here are examples of the reaffirmation of a secured debt (like a vehicle loan) in a Chapter 7 case vs. addressing it in a Chapter 13 case. 

 

The last blog post was about when to reaffirm a secured debt under Chapter 7 and when to handle that under Chapter 13 instead. This kind of comparison of options can get a bit dry. So today we’re demonstrating how it really works with some examples. We change the facts a few times to show when each of these two options makes more sense.

The Initial Facts

Let’s say a guy named Trevor just fell two months behind on his vehicle loan. He’s at immediate risk of getting his car repossessed. He really needs to keep his vehicle to get to and from work. He’s always behind on his vehicle loan because he has so many other debts—mostly medical bill and unsecured credit cards. What’s especially killing him is that he got sued on some big medical bills and is getting his wages garnished.

Trevor sees a good bankruptcy lawyer. She tells him that filing quickly under either Chapter 7 or 13 would stop the repossession. Either option would also permanently stop the paycheck garnishment. He tells her that his brother can give him the money to catch up on the two missed payments.  The brother is only willing to do this if he takes care of his other debts with some kind of bankruptcy solution.

Chapter 7 Reaffirmation If Can Bring Secured Debt Current

Much of the time if you want to keep collateral on a secured debt in a Chapter 7 case you must bring the debt current within a few weeks, and then reaffirm the debt on its original terms. This is particularly true with vehicle loans with the larger national lenders. In other words, you have to agree to remain fully liable on the debt. You have to agree to continue being legally bound by all the terms of the contract. (See our recent blog posts about the risks of reaffirming.)

Trevor has a relatively easy way to bring his vehicle loan current, thanks to his brother. So his lawyer recommends that he files a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. Shortly after filing he can bring the vehicle loan current and sign a reaffirmation agreement. With all his other debts being discharged (legally written off), he’ll be able to keep current on his car payments. Problems solved.

If He Can’t Catch Up Fast

But what if Trevor didn’t have his brother’s help? He may not be able to catch up fast enough to be able to reaffirm his vehicle loan. In a Chapter 7 case he has about 2 months after filing—3 months at the most—to catch up. That’s because you usually have to get current before the creditor will let you reaffirm. And you have to reaffirm before the bankruptcy court enters the “discharge order” about 3 months after filing.

Assuming that Trevor didn’t think he could catch up in time, and because he absolutely didn’t want to risk not being able to keep his car, his lawyer would likely recommend Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” filing instead. This would give him many months—maybe even a couple years—to bring the vehicle loan current.

Other Special Debts Encouraging a Chapter 13 Filing

Now also assume that Trevor’s financial pressures had also put him quite a few months behind on his spousal support.  His ex-spouse had actually been quite flexible, letting him skip payments here and there, or send smaller amounts. But once the lawsuit’s garnishments started, his spousal support payments became even more irregular. So, his ex-spouse got fed up and sent the account to the state’s support enforcement agency. Trevor now finds himself $4,500 behind on support, with aggressive collection to start any moment. And a Chapter 7 filing won’t stop the state’s collection of this support.

Trevor’s lawyer tells him that a Chapter 13 filing WILL stop collection for this $4,500 of support. He’d have up to 5 years to bring that current. His Chapter 13 payment plan would be based on what he could afford to pay. That plan would show how he would—over time—catch up on both the vehicle loan arrearage and the support arrearage, while keeping current on ongoing payments.

His lawyer tells Trevor that a possible downside to Chapter 13 is he’d have to pay all that he could afford to his other creditors during 3 years. (5 years if his income is too high based on his state and family size.) But there may be very little—even possibly nothing—going to his other debts if most of his income goes to living expenses and to bring these two special debts current.

Trevor decides on a Chapter 13 case. He will be able to keep his vehicle, catching up as his budget allows. He also has a reasonable way to bring his big spousal support arrearage current. He knows that at the end of the process he’ll be current on these two, and will otherwise be completely debt free.

 

Reaffirmation Agreement vs. Chapter 13

January 3rd, 2018 at 8:00 am

When is it better to reaffirm a secured debt (such as a vehicle loan) in a Chapter 7 case vs. handling it instead in a Chapter 13 case? 

 

The last 5 blog posts in December were about keeping the collateral you want by “reaffirming” the debt. “Reaffirmation” applies only to Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy”cases. (We’ve focused mostly on reaffirming a vehicle loan.) Today we get into keeping collateral (such as a vehicle) instead in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case. Our main question today: when is Chapter 13 a better way to keep your collateral than Chapter 7?

Rule of Thumb: Chapter 7 unless Need More Help

There are basically two questions:

  1. Would you be able to keep your collateral/vehicle in a Chapter 7 case?
  2. Even if so, would you get a significantly better result in a Chapter 13 case?

1. When You’re Able to Keep the Collateral in Chapter 7

If you are current on your debt payments, you would very likely be able to keep your collateral/vehicle under Chapter 7. You usually have to formally reaffirm the debt. That means you exclude that debt from the discharge (legal write off) that Chapter 7 provides. You continue to be fully liable on that one debt.

Creditors are usually very happy to be singled out this way. You are much better of a credit risk once you no longer owe all or most of your other debts.

Even if you are not current a Chapter 7 reaffirmation works if:

  • you are able to bring the debt current within two or so months after filing, or
  • the creditor is willing to work out the missed payments—give you more time to catch up, put the missed payments at the end of the contract, or even forgive the payments altogether

Chapter 7 also works well in those situations that a creditor is willing to lower the monthly payment and maybe even the total owed. This seldom happens with vehicle loans, except maybe if the vehicle is worth much, much less than you owe.

2. When Chapter 13 Can Give You a Better Result

Even if you CAN keep the collateral in a Chapter 7 case that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should if Chapter 13 would give you a much better result.

If you’re not current on payments, Chapter 13 would give you much more time to catch up. Consider if your creditor is making you catch up immediately before reaffirming, or within a few months after reaffirming. Let’s say you COULD catch up but it would take extraordinary effort to do so. Chapter 13 could give you many months—or maybe even a few years—to catch up. If that would greatly help you that extra time to catch up which Chapter 13 gives you could make its much longer procedure worthwhile. This may be especially true if you have other very pressing debts (child or spousal support, income taxes, etc.).

Whether or not you are current on payments, Chapter 13 can give you a much better result if your collateral is worth significantly less than you owe on it. You can do a “cramdown” when your collateral is NOT real estate but instead “personal property.” Personal property is essentially anything that isn’t real estate, including vehicles, furniture, appliances, electronics, etc.  Without going into detail here, “cramdown” allows you to re-write your loan based on how much your collateral is worth. You can usually reduce the monthly payment and the total you pay, sometimes very significantly. “Cramdown” is available only under Chapter 13, not Chapter 7.

Especially Bad Payment History

As we said earlier, it’s usually in a creditor’s best interest to allow you to reaffirm a debt whenever you are willing to do so. But in rare circumstances a creditor may refuse to allow you to reaffirm the debt and keep the collateral. This may happen if you’ve had an especially bad payment record—consistently been very late on your payments, for example. Or if you’ve failed to maintain insurance. At some point a creditor may just prefer to repossess the collateral, sell it, and to end the relationship. Talk with you bankruptcy lawyer about whether this may be an issue for you if your history sounds like this. He or she likely has experience with your creditor about such matters.

In situations when a creditor may not be willing to let you reaffirm, Chapter 13 may be worth seriously consideration. In a Chapter 13 case the creditor has much less say about whether you get to keep collateral. You and your lawyer put the secured debt into your payment plan, leaving the creditor with limited grounds for objection. It’s true that your prior history may result in some greater restrictions. For example, if you’ve let a vehicle’s insurance lapse before, you can’t let that happen during the Chapter 13 case or you may lose your vehicle.  Also you DO have to comply with the plan that you propose and the court approves. But as long as you do so you’ll be able to keep the collateral and will own it free and clear by the end of the case.

 

The Reaffirmation Hearing

December 27th, 2017 at 8:00 am

You don’t need to go to a reaffirmation hearing, unless you don’t have a lawyer, or he or she does not sign the reaffirmation agreement. 

 

Reaffirmation Agreement

If you want to keep the collateral on a debt usually you have to exclude that debt from the legal write-off (“discharge”) of your debts that you receive in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. You exclude that debt from the discharge by signing a “reaffirmation agreement.” You remain legally liable on that debt. Through that document. most of the time you agree to all the terms of your original debt agreement. See this sample form reaffirmation agreement.

For example, you agree to pay the same monthly payment at the same interest rate as originally agreed. And you agree that if you don’t make the payments the creditor can repossess the collateral. And in most circumstances the creditor can then come after you for any remaining balance owed. (See our recent blog post about this risk of owing a “deficiency balance” after repossession.)

Conditions When Don’t Need Court Approval

After you sign a reaffirmation agreement it is filed at the bankruptcy court. Most of the time it then goes into effect without the need for court approval. So there’s no reaffirmation hearing.

 The reaffirmation agreement does need court approval in two circumstances. If:

  • you don’t have a bankruptcy lawyer representing you, or
  • your lawyer does not sign the reaffirmation agreement

Why Would My Lawyer Not Sign the Reaffirmation Agreement?

By law your lawyer has the option of signing off on the reaffirmation agreement. To do so he or she would need to sign off on the following specific considerations:

that—

(A) such [reaffirmation] agreement represents a fully informed and voluntary agreement by the debtor;

(B) such agreement does not impose an undue hardship on the debtor or a dependent of the debtor; and

(C) the attorney fully advised the debtor of the legal effect and consequences of—

(i) an agreement of the kind specified in this subsection; and

(ii) any default under such an agreement…

See Section 524(c)(3) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Subsections (A) and (C) would not likely be a problem for most lawyers. He or she would make sure you were “fully informed” and “fully advised” as indicated. Subsection (B) could sometimes be more challenging. Your budget may show that as much as you want or need the collateral (for example, a vehicle), you can‘t afford the loan payments and its other costs (insurance and maintenance, for a vehicle.) If so, the reaffirmation agreement appears to be “impose an undue hardship” on you and your family.

Usually you and lawyer can produce a budget that shows that you CAN afford to keep the collateral. But if not, your lawyer would understandably be reluctant to certify that the agreement did not impose an undue hardship. If he or she didn’t sign the reaffirmation agreement so certifying, you’d have to get court approval at a reaffirmation hearing.

The Reaffirmation Hearing Procedure

At the time scheduled for your reaffirmation hearing wait in the courtroom until the judge’s clerk calls your case. If you have a lawyer he or she will likely be there as well.

Approach the podium when the clerk calls your case. The judge will explain the purpose of the hearing. Then you’ll need to provide evidence showing that reaffirming the debt will not impose an undue hardship on you. You’ll need to show that you can make the payment while still being able to pay all your other necessary expenses.

You will also likely need to tell the judge that you understand “the legal effect and consequences of” the agreement. You will also specifically need to show you understand what happens if you default on the reaffirmation agreement.  Particularly, the judge needs to be assured that you know that you will be liable on the debt in spite of filing bankruptcy.

If the judge is satisfied that you will not suffer an undue hardship, and that you understand what you are doing, she or he will approve the reaffirmation agreement. You’ll be able to keep the collateral as long as you abide by the agreement.

But if the judge is not satisfied, he or she will disapprove the agreement. At that point, if the creditor requires a binding reaffirmation agreement, it will be able to take back the collateral. That is not a result you want. So make sure you discuss all this with your lawyer early in the process to avoid this from happening.

 

Reaffirming a Debt That’s Not Current

December 25th, 2017 at 8:00 am

You usually have to get current on a secured debt before you can reaffirm it. But the terms of a reaffirmation agreement may be negotiable. 

 

Two blog posts ago we introduced reaffirmation agreements, and in the last one we discussed their risks. Today we get into what happens if you are not current on a debt that you want to reaffirm.

Reaffirmation Basics

Reaffirming a debt means excluding it from the legal write-off (the “discharge”) that you get in a Chapter 7 case.

The most common reason to reaffirm a debt is to be allowed to keep the collateral securing that debt.  There are occasional other reasons. For example you might agree to reaffirm a debt because you allegedly incurred it fraudulently. So you settle the debt by agreeing to reaffirm and pay a portion. But the vast majority of reaffirmations are done to retain collateral that you want to keep.

Most of the time when you reaffirm, you agree to all the terms of your original debt agreement. For example, you agree that if you fail to make vehicle loan payments the creditor can repossess your vehicle and come after you for any remaining balance. (See our last blog post about this risk.)

The Common Obligation to Get Current First

Because you usually reaffirm all the terms of the original debt agreement, most of the time you have to be current on that original agreement when you enter into the reaffirmation agreement. Otherwise you’d be in default from the start.

Especially with vehicle loans, and particularly with the larger vehicle lenders, they allow no negotiation about this. It’s the same thing with not being able to reduce the monthly payment amount, or the total debt amount. Even if the vehicle is not worth what you owe, if you want to keep the vehicle most of the time they make you agree to pay the full amount owed.

Possibility of Negotiating Past-Due Payments

This does not mean that any of these terms are never negotiable. For example, if you owed $5,000 on a vehicle clearly not worth more than $3,000, it would sure seem to make economic sense for the lender to be willing to lower the balance to, say,$3,750, plus make some money on future interest, instead having you surrender the vehicle.  Or if you were a payment or two behind, to reaffirm for $4,000 and give you time to catch up.

In a reaffirmation the two parties could change any of the terms of the original agreement, if they both wanted to. If you were behind, you could be given time to catch up. Or the payments could be put on the end of the contract, so you could delay catching up until then.

The practical problem is the willingness of the lender. As mentioned above, the larger vehicle lenders tend to be inflexible. For reasons beyond the scope of this blog post, they’ve largely decided it’s take it or leave it. Either reaffirm all the terms of the original deal or surrender the vehicle. Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer to find out whether this is true about your lender.  

Chapter 13 As a Negotiating Threat

Be aware that the Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” option usually gives you much more power over your vehicle lender if you’re behind on your secured debt. You almost always have many months and sometimes even years to catch up. If you qualify for “cramdown” you would likely be able to lower the monthly payments. Usually you could even reduce the total amount you pay before you get the title, sometimes significantly.

When you talk with you lawyer ask how Chapter 13 would affect your vehicle or other secured debt. Ask whether threatening to turn your case into a Chapter 13 one might encourage your lender to be more flexible. And of course give appropriate consideration to filing a Chapter 13 case instead for the benefits it would give you.

 

Be Cautious about Reaffirming a Debt

December 22nd, 2017 at 8:00 am

Reaffirming a debt, including a vehicle loan, can be a very sensible choice. But be fully aware of the risks and possible other options. 

 

Last time we introduced reaffirmation agreements as a good way to keep collateral like a vehicle under Chapter 7. Essentially, you get to keep the vehicle or other collateral in return for agreeing to remain liable on the debt. Plus this enables you to put positive information on your credit report as you make each monthly payment.

But reaffirming a debt comes with risks. You need to be clear about those risks as you consider whether to sign a reaffirmation agreement.

We’ll focus again today on vehicle loan reaffirmations because they are common, and a handy way to explain the issues.

Passing up Your One Opportunity to Escape the Debt

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” gives you the near-lifetime opportunity to get out from under your debts. Don’t pass up on this opportunity as to any of your debts unless you do so with your eyes wide open.

Be especially careful with relatively large debts, such as a car or truck loan.

Are you are simply assuming that you want your present vehicle and its debt, without seriously considering other alternatives?  Stop and think about whether you have ANY alternatives. Do you have a friend or relative who’d sell (or maybe even give) you another, cheaper, but reasonably reliable vehicle? Does public or other alternate transportation make sense considering how much money you’d save, on monthly payments AND the other many costs of vehicle ownership? What other transportation could you get with the money you’d save without a vehicle payment and the other costs?

Sometimes it absolutely makes sense to get rid of all of your other debts and just reaffirm one. But think long and hard about whether it might be better for you—on the short run and long—to not reaffirm and thus get rid of ALL your debts.

Reaffirmation Risk

The big risk when you reaffirm a debt is having to pay it later when you wished you didn’t. 

Circumstances change. In the context of a vehicle loan, you might not be able to afford the payments like you expected. The vehicle may cost lots more in repairs. A much less expensive vehicle may come your way and you wish you weren’t stuck with the reaffirmed one.  Your job or other life circumstances may change so you don’t need the vehicle so much.

If your vehicle gets repossessed at some point after you’ve reaffirmed the debt you’ll very likely owe a substantial balance. That’s because the creditor will likely sell the repossessed vehicle at an auto auction for very little proceeds. It will apply those modest sale proceeds to the debt, but after likely adding large fees related to the repossession. The creditor will then demand payment of this “deficiency balance” in a lump sum. If you don’t pay it quickly vehicle creditors usually don’t hesitate to sue for that balance.

So after having gone through bankruptcy months or years later you end up with a new serious debt problem. You’d also significantly hurt your credit record just when you’d hoped to make progress after your bankruptcy filing.

Avoiding this Risk

Of course you can avoid this risk by surrendering your vehicle or other collateral and not reaffirming the debt. Any potential deficiency balance or other obligation would then be discharged—permanently written off. This would happen within 3 or 4 months after your bankruptcy filing, and you’d be completely free of the debt.

You MIGHT be able to keep the collateral WITHOUT reaffirming the debt. In SOME circumstances you could just keep current on the payments, fulfill any other obligations on the debt (such as maintaining the required insurance on the vehicle), but NOT enter into a reaffirmation agreement. Under some state laws the creditor could not or would not repossess the vehicle. Then if your circumstances later changed you could surrender the vehicle without owing anything. Because you had not reaffirmed the debt the creditor would only have rights to the collateral itself. It would have no further rights on the debt, including to any deficiency balance.

Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about whether this “pass-through” option is available on your vehicle or other secured loan. It depends on your state’s laws, the practices of your lender, and sometimes your specific circumstances.

Choosing to Accept the Risk

Reaffirming a debt may be completely sensible. If you definitely need or even strongly want your vehicle (or other collateral), can afford both the monthly payment and other costs of ownership, can do so long-term, reaffirming the debt can be a prudent choice. Just do it only after getting fully informed of the risks and seriously considering the alternatives.

 

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