You'll keep all of your property in Chapter 13, including cars, because the Chapter 13 repayment plan affords benefits that aren't available in Chapter 7. For instance, you can do all of the following things in Chapter 13:
But Chapter 13 is expensive, and not everyone can afford the required monthly payment. You can determine whether you're qualified by learning to calculate a Chapter 13 plan.
You don't lose everything in bankruptcy, but not everything is protected either. So you'll want to understand what happens to all property in Chapter 13, including cars. Here is how it works.
Each state has "exemption" laws that explain the specific property you can keep in bankruptcy. Your creditors are entitled to the value of any "nonexempt" property you can't protect. But Chapters 7 and 13 creditors receive the funds differently:
So what does this mean for your car? These examples should help.
Exempt car in Chapters 7 and 13. Suppose your state lets you exempt $10,000 of car equity. If your car's equity is worth $10,000 or less, you'll keep the car in Chapter 7, and your Chapter 13 payment won't be affected—you won't have to pay to keep your vehicle.
Nonexempt car in Chapter 7. Suppose you own a Tesla outright worth $40,000, but your state's motor vehicle exemption limits you to $10,000 of equity. The Chapter 7 trustee would sell the car, give you the $10,000 exemption amount, and distribute the rest to creditors after deducting sales costs and the trustee's fee. Assuming expenses of 20%, creditors would receive $24,000.
Nonexempt car in Chapter 13 example. In Chapter 13, the trustee wouldn't sell your Tesla, but you wouldn't be off the hook financially. You'd pay your creditors $24,000—the amount they would have received in Chapter 7—through your Chapter 13 payment plan. It would cost you $400 per month for five years to keep your car.
But these calculations address equity only. Keep reading if you have a car payment.
If you're making vehicle payments but no longer want the car—for instance, it's too costly or needs repairs—you can give it back to the lender in Chapter 13. It won't cost any more than you'd have to pay otherwise to return the car and wipe out the debt.
However, keeping a car with an outstanding vehicle loan requires continued monthly car payments. Otherwise, the lender can take or "repossess" the vehicle using the lien rights you agreed to when buying it on credit. The lien lets the lender take back the car if you don't pay as agreed—even if you file for bankruptcy.
How you'll pay your car payment will depend on your court's rules. Some courts let you pay the lender directly or "outside the plan." This system is cheaper because you avoid the trustee's fee. However, filers who are behind on a car payment often must pay the payment and arrearages in the plan (more below).
Chapter 7 doesn't offer a repayment plan, so filers can't catch up on a car payment if they're behind when they file. As a result, Chapter 7 filers with late car payments lose their vehicles because Chapter 7 doesn't protect cars in these instances.
By contrast, you can catch up on an overdue car payment in Chapter 13. You'll propose a plan that pays car arrearages over the three- or five-year plan length. You might opt for a five-year plan even if you qualify for three if it helps keep your monthly plan payment affordable. And, as with all car loans, you can reduce the interest rate and pay less—your bankruptcy lawyer will know the current amount.
If you satisfy certain conditions—the rules vary by state—you can reduce or "cram down" the principal balance of your car loan to the car's fair market value. After you pay the lender an amount equal to your car's value and complete your plan, the court wipes out ("discharges") the remaining loan balance.
Example. Justin owes $10,000 on a car worth $7,000. If Justin qualifies for a cramdown, he'll pay the lender $7,000 through his Chapter 13 plan and own the vehicle free and clear after bankruptcy.
As with all car loans in Chapter 13, you'll be able to reduce the interest rate, too. Learn more about cramdowns and other debts wiped out in Chapter 13.
Bankruptcy is an unusual area of law because it's essentially a qualification process. The laws provide instructions for completing a 50- to 60-page bankruptcy petition, and because all rules apply in every case, you can't skip a step.
The forms and resources below will help you find more information. Also, you can use this list of Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy forms to see where this topic falls. And this handy bankruptcy document checklist will help you gather the things you'll need to complete the petition.
More Bankruptcy Information
We want to help you find the answers you need. Go to TheBankruptcySite for more easy-to-understand bankruptcy articles, or consider buying a self-help book like Chapter 13 Bankruptcy by Attorney Cara O'Neill.
We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all bankruptcy issues or the facts of your case. The best way to protect your assets in bankruptcy is by consulting with a local bankruptcy lawyer.