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.