If you owe a debt on a vehicle, Chapter 7 gives you a narrow choice: keep it and pay on the contract, or surrender it and owe nothing.
The Bankruptcy Trustee Only Cares about Equity Beyond Any Exemption
In a Chapter 7 case you have two people besides you who could be interested in your vehicle. The bankruptcy trustee could care about any equity you have in the vehicle (the value over the amount you owe on it), but only if that amount is more than what would be protected under the vehicle exemption. There is seldom too much equity if you owe on a vehicle, but check with your attorney to make sure this is not an issue in your case.
Surrendering a Vehicle to the Lender
You may not want to keep your vehicle because you simply cannot afford to keep making the payments or doing so is just not worthwhile considering your alternatives. Or you may be a couple payments behind, and filed your Chapter 7 case quickly to stop your vehicle from being repossessed, but now realize that hanging on to the vehicle is not feasible for you.
You likely know that if you just surrendered your vehicle without a bankruptcy, you’ll very likely owe and be sued for the “deficiency balance” (the amount you would owe after your vehicle is sold, its sale price is credited to your account, and all the repo and other costs are added). That deficiency balance is often much higher than you expect. The Chapter 7 bankruptcy will almost always write off that deficiency balance. Indeed, that is a common purpose for filing bankruptcy.
Keeping Your Vehicle
If you want to keep your vehicle, generally you must be either current on your loan or able to get current within about 30 to 60 days after filing the Chapter 7 case. You will almost for sure be required to sign a reaffirmation agreement, which legally excludes the vehicle loan from the discharge (the legal write-off) of the rest of your debts. You have to sign that reaffirmation agreement and have it filed at the bankruptcy court within a short period of time—usually within 60 days after your bankruptcy hearing, meaning you have to be current usually a few weeks before that. Then you have to stay current if you want to keep the car, just as if you had not filed a bankruptcy. And also just as if you had not filed bankruptcy, if that vehicle later gets repossessed or surrendered, there is a good chance that you would owe a deficiency balance. So talk to your attorney and think carefully about the risks before reaffirming your vehicle loan. In the Central District of California, where I practice (specifically the Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indio et al.) the Bankruptcy Judges review every reaffirmation agreement. If the Judge thinks you can’t afford to keep the car based on your income and expenses, you will be called into a hearing before the Judge to explain your decision to keep the car.
The Lack of Other Alternative Usually
Almost always—especially with conventional, national vehicle loan creditors—you are stuck with the terms of your original loan contract if you want to keep your vehicle. You can’t reduce the balance of the loan, the interest rate, or the monthly payment. If you’re behind, almost always you must pay the arrearage and be current within a month or two. There can be exceptions, especially with local finance companies and such who would rather minimize their losses by being flexible. So be sure to ask your attorney whether your vehicle creditor has such as history. And if you do need more flexibility—if you must keep your vehicle, and owe more than it is worth, and you can’t afford the payments—ask about Chapter 13 as a possible better solution. Sometimes you can also “redeem” the car loan by bringing in another lender to pay off your current loan at a better interest rate. It’s a tricky thing to do. I’ve done it for a couple of clients. You absolutely have to have an attorney involved to pull it off.
Usually “straight bankruptcy”—Chapter 7—is the best way to go if your vehicle situation is pretty straightforward: you either want to surrender a vehicle, or else you want to hang onto it and are current or can get current within a month or two of your bankruptcy filing.