Escaping a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 13
Getting out of a vehicle lease by “rejecting” it in Chapter 13 isn’t quite as quick as in Chapter 7 but has about the same practical effect.
Getting out of Your Lease in Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13
Two days ago we discussed how a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” gets you out of a car or truck lease. It discharges (permanently writes off) whatever debt you’d have from surrendering that car or truck.
When you get out of a vehicle lease you often owe money to the lessor; sometimes a lot of money. That can be true whether you break the lease early or get to the end. Either way you could owe the lessor thousands of dollars in contractual fees.
Once you’ve decided that you need to file bankruptcy, and that you want to get out of the vehicle lease, as long as you qualify for Chapter 7 and it’s the best option overall, you can almost always discharge all the debts arising from the lease. A Chapter 7 case is likely the easiest and quickest option.
But for many reasons a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case may be the better way to go.
First, you may not qualify for Chapter 7 based on your income and expenses under the “means” test.
Second, more likely you’re filing under Chapter 13 because it’s simply be the better option. It gives you tools to meet important financial goals, tools unavailable under Chapter 7. You can often protect an asset that would be at risk of being taken by a Chapter 7 trustee. Chapter 13 provides numerous ways to preserve precious collateral on your secured debts, such as your home or vehicle (beyond the leased one). Sometimes you can keep your home/vehicle while paying less than you’d pay under Chapter 7. Chapter 13 can also protect you while you catch up on child or spousal support arrearage, or on income taxes. You pay or catch up on these special debts while making payments based on your realistic budget. These are just some of the good reasons to file a Chapter 13 case, unrelated to your vehicle lease.
The Chapter 13 Option
Whether you’re filing a Chapter 13 case because you don’t qualify under Chapter 7 or because Chapter 13 is better all around, you can surrender your leased vehicle and discharge the debt. Discharging—legally writing off—that debt is not as straightforward as under Chapter 7. But it almost always leaves you with the same result. You would owe nothing at all on the vehicle lease once your bankruptcy case is finished.
“Rejecting” Your Vehicle Lease
Under Chapter 13 you can either “assume” (continue with) the lease or “reject” it and return the vehicle. Two blog posts we explained how to “assume” your lease and keep your leased vehicle.
But to instead get out of your lease through your bankruptcy lawyer you simply state in your Chapter 13 that you are “rejecting” the lease. Arrangements are made to return the vehicle to the lessor. You don’t make any more monthly lease payments, and if you’re behind you don’t have to catch up.
Whatever you owe on the contract—which may be a substantial amount—is then treated as a “general unsecured” debt.
Treatment of “General Unsecured” Debts
Debts are either “secured,” “priority,” or “general unsecured.” Your remaining lease debt fits in the third category. It is “unsecured” in that it’s no long secured by anything since you’ve surrendered the vehicle. It’s “general” in that it’s not a “priority” debt, which are favored ones (like child support and certain income taxes).
Your lessor would likely file a “proof of claim” with the bankruptcy court. That’s a statement asserting how much you contractually owe on the lease. Assuming it’s accurate and you don’t object to it, its amount is lumped in with all your other “general unsecured” debts.
In your Chapter 13 plan, usually you pay all or most of your secured and “priority” debts. But that’s very seldom true for the “general unsecured” ones. How much, if any, you pay on this category of debts depends on a lot of factors. Mostly it depends on your income and expenses, how much you have in secured and “priority” debts, and what, if anything, is left over for “general unsecured” debts in the period of time you’re in the Chapter 13 case.
Often the Lease Debt Has No Financial Effect
In many situations the existence of the lease surrender debt does not increase what you pay into your Chapter 13 payment plan.
How could that be? It happens in two circumstances, one less common, the other much more so.
1. You may be allowed to pay nothing at all to your “general unsecured” debts, a “0% plan.” This happens when all of your available “disposable income” during your 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 case get paid on secured debts (such as a home mortgage, or vehicle or furniture loans) and/or “priority” debts (such as income taxes and child or spousal support arrearage). If you pay 0% of your “general unsecured” debts, that means that you’re paying 0% of your vehicle lease debt.
2. The more common Chapter 13 plans are those in which you pay the “general unsecured” debts something instead of nothing, Still, the existence of the leased vehicle debt very often does not increase how much you pay into your plan. That’s because most of the time you pay a fixed amount on all of your “general unsecured” debts. That amount is essentially what your budget says you can afford to pay over the life of your case. So, as a result, adding more debt to that pool—the debt from the surrendered leased vehicle—simply reduces the money that would otherwise have gone to other “general unsecured” debts. You pay no more; the money going to the “general unsecured” debts just gets divided differently.