If you’re considering filing bankruptcy, there are options available that can help you keep your vehicle from being repossessed — even if you haven’t fully repaid the secured loan used to buy the car. In many states you may be able to avoid repossession of your car through bankruptcy code exemptions, though the laws vary from state to state. 

Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy include provisions through which you may be able to keep a car that you purchased with a secured loan. 

How to keep your car through Chapter 7 bankruptcy 

Car loans are secured debt, meaning the car is pledged as collateral to back the loan. Because the car serves as collateral, it can be repossessed by the lender if you fail to maintain payments on the debt. However, under Chapter 7, which is the most popular bankruptcy for individuals, you have a few different options for hanging on to your vehicle. 

“To keep a vehicle while going through Chapter 7, the debtor has to be current and stay current with the lender, perform a ‘redemption’ which involves paying off the lender, or perform a ‘reaffirmation,’ which can involve changing the loan terms, but this requires lender consent,” says Lamar Hawkins, a bankruptcy attorney with Guidant Law. 

Here’s how redemption and reaffirmation work: 

  • Redemption: Pursuing redemption involves making one lump-sum payment to your creditor for the car’s current fair market value. If you can afford to do this, it may make life easier in the future, since you’ll have eliminated car payments altogether. But because most people file for bankruptcy at a time when cash is not readily available, this may not be a viable option for everyone. 
  • Reaffirm: This option allows you to essentially continue making payments on your loan as you did before filing for bankruptcy. In reaffirming your debt, you agree a second time to continue making payments according to a schedule agreed upon by you and your creditor, which may include revised loan terms. 

Of course, if neither continuing payments nor redeeming the car will work for you financially, you can also choose to simply surrender your vehicle to the creditor and have the remainder of your debt discharged. 

“When you get a Chapter 7 Discharge, you will have no more personal responsibility to pay the loan,” says Dai Rosenblum, a Pennsylvania-based bankruptcy attorney. “All the creditor can do is take their collateral — your car. They can never sue you for money.”   

Reasons you wouldn’t keep your car during Chapter 7 bankruptcy 

Keeping your car may not always be possible when filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy and sometimes it simply does not make financial sense to try and hang on to the vehicle. When sorting through these questions, the value of your car and your equity in the car play a key role.  

Car value and bankruptcy exemptions 

The value of your vehicle in a bankruptcy filing is not based on how much you paid for it when you bought it. In most states, value is tied to the car’s actual cash value based on such factors as the car’s year, make and mileage. Car industry sources like Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds may also be used to help determine the value of your vehicle. 

When filing for Chapter 7 your assets are liquidated or sold to pay creditors. But a bankruptcy court allows you to keep a certain amount of your property up to a specific monetary value, according to Debt.org. This is called an “exemption.” The federal exemption level is $4,000. However, many states have their own exemption limit that must be adhered to — some state’s exemptions are more than $4,000, while others are less.  

If your car’s current value is determined to be less than your state’s exemption rate, then you will be allowed to keep the car even though you’re filing for bankruptcy. On the other hand, if the car is worth more than the exemption, a bankruptcy trustee may opt to sell the car to help pay your creditors. 

Here’s how it works: If your state’s exemption is $4,000 and your car’s value is $2,000, you will likely be allowed to keep the vehicle because it’s worth less than the exemption. If on the other hand your state’s exemption level is $4,000 and your car is worth $10,000 then a bankruptcy trustee may sell the car and use the proceeds to pay off debt. 

Car equity and bankruptcy  

Yet another consideration in bankruptcy filings is how much equity you have in a vehicle with an outstanding loan. Similar to a mortgage on a home, equity is determined by subtracting what you still owe on the car loan from the car’s current market value.  

“For example, if you have a car with a fair market value of $10,000 with a $1,000 loan balance, you have $9,000 of equity,” says Rosenblum. 

If the equity is greater than the exemption, a bankruptcy trustee could choose to sell the car and apply the proceeds toward paying off your debts. 

It doesn’t make financial sense to keep the car 

Finally, it’s also worth bearing in mind that if the current fair market value of your vehicle is less than what you owe on the car loan, then keeping the vehicle will not necessarily be a wise financial move.  

“Very often the loan balance is greater than the value of the car, and without the means or desire to keep the vehicle, the filer lets it go,” says Michael Sullivan, a personal financial consultant with the nonprofit financial counseling agency Take Charge America. 

How to keep your car through Chapter 13 bankruptcy 

Similar to Chapter 7, there are various options available through Chapter 13 that allow you to keep your car.  

“The Chapter 7 framework is the basis for Chapter 13,” says Rosenblum. “But in Chapter 13 you reorganize your debt.” 

Creating a payment plan 

As part of Chapter 13 debt reorganization, a three- to five-year repayment plan will be developed that factors in your income and assets. The goal of the Chapter 13 process is to allow you to keep your possessions, including your car, while paying off your debt. Additionally, if you’re behind on payments, the plan will require you to catch up and make timely payments moving forward. 

Revising the terms of the loan 

The court may also require that the lender revise the terms of the car loan, including lowering interest rate, which is another way to help you keep the car. With revised terms, the monthly payments will be lower. 

“A rewrite of the debt owed to the lender can occur through a Chapter 13 plan, and market terms can be forced on a lender,” says Hawkins. 

Reducing the loan balance 

The process of altering auto loan terms as part of Chapter 13 may also include what’s known as a “cramdown,” which reduces the amount you must pay the lender to the fair market value of the car. The timeline of your car purchase is an important factor in a cramdown. In particular, there is a 910 rule that applies to cramdowns. 

  • Newer cars: If you bought your car within 910 days of your bankruptcy filing, you must pay the full value of the car loan, though your interest rate may be reduced. 
  • Older cars: If you purchased your car more than 910 days before filing for bankruptcy, you’re only required to repay the car’s current fair market value. 

Reasons you wouldn’t keep your car during Chapter 13 bankruptcy 

In certain circumstances it may not be possible to keep your vehicle when pursuing Chapter 13, or it may not make sense to hang on to the car. Examples of when this may hold true include: 

The loan is in arrears, and you do not have the financial resources to bring the loan current or the ability to make ongoing monthly payments. In this case, you may have to give up the vehicle.  

The vehicle is not in good shape or is unreliable. Under these circumstances, it may make more sense to simply give up the car. 

  • The car is particularly valuable and selling it would provide money to pay off your debts. 
  • You have significant equity in the vehicle, which exceeds the bankruptcy exemption levels in your state. 

The bottom line  

Filing bankruptcy does not automatically mean that a car purchased with a secured loan will be repossessed. Under both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy codes there are provisions that protect your car. Working with a bankruptcy attorney can help you decide which approach to bankruptcy makes the most sense for your financial situation.