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.