You usually have to get current on a secured debt before you can reaffirm it. But the terms of a reaffirmation agreement may be negotiable.
Two blog posts ago we introduced reaffirmation agreements, and in the last one we discussed their risks. Today we get into what happens if you are not current on a debt that you want to reaffirm.
Reaffirming a debt means excluding it from the legal write-off (the “discharge”) that you get in a Chapter 7 case.
The most common reason to reaffirm a debt is to be allowed to keep the collateral securing that debt. There are occasional other reasons. For example you might agree to reaffirm a debt because you allegedly incurred it fraudulently. So you settle the debt by agreeing to reaffirm and pay a portion. But the vast majority of reaffirmations are done to retain collateral that you want to keep.
Most of the time when you reaffirm, you agree to all the terms of your original debt agreement. For example, you agree that if you fail to make vehicle loan payments the creditor can repossess your vehicle and come after you for any remaining balance. (See our last blog post about this risk.)
The Common Obligation to Get Current First
Because you usually reaffirm all the terms of the original debt agreement, most of the time you have to be current on that original agreement when you enter into the reaffirmation agreement. Otherwise you’d be in default from the start.
Especially with vehicle loans, and particularly with the larger vehicle lenders, they allow no negotiation about this. It’s the same thing with not being able to reduce the monthly payment amount, or the total debt amount. Even if the vehicle is not worth what you owe, if you want to keep the vehicle most of the time they make you agree to pay the full amount owed.
Possibility of Negotiating Past-Due Payments
This does not mean that any of these terms are never negotiable. For example, if you owed $5,000 on a vehicle clearly not worth more than $3,000, it would sure seem to make economic sense for the lender to be willing to lower the balance to, say,$3,750, plus make some money on future interest, instead having you surrender the vehicle. Or if you were a payment or two behind, to reaffirm for $4,000 and give you time to catch up.
In a reaffirmation the two parties could change any of the terms of the original agreement, if they both wanted to. If you were behind, you could be given time to catch up. Or the payments could be put on the end of the contract, so you could delay catching up until then.
The practical problem is the willingness of the lender. As mentioned above, the larger vehicle lenders tend to be inflexible. For reasons beyond the scope of this blog post, they’ve largely decided it’s take it or leave it. Either reaffirm all the terms of the original deal or surrender the vehicle. Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer to find out whether this is true about your lender.
Chapter 13 As a Negotiating Threat
Be aware that the Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” option usually gives you much more power over your vehicle lender if you’re behind on your secured debt. You almost always have many months and sometimes even years to catch up. If you qualify for “cramdown” you would likely be able to lower the monthly payments. Usually you could even reduce the total amount you pay before you get the title, sometimes significantly.
When you talk with you lawyer ask how Chapter 13 would affect your vehicle or other secured debt. Ask whether threatening to turn your case into a Chapter 13 one might encourage your lender to be more flexible. And of course give appropriate consideration to filing a Chapter 13 case instead for the benefits it would give you.