Be Cautious about Reaffirming a Debt
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.
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.