It's a little known, but extremely valuable, technique employed by experienced bankruptcy lawyers: Using the "automatic stay" feature of bankruptcy to get a repossessed car back into the hands of its owner.
Our DC-based bankruptcy law firm used it the other day to get a car back for a young man in Northern Virginia who needed his car to get around and commute to his job.
When a car is repossessed, physically it comes under the control of the lender. However, legal title does not pass, and remains with the owner, until a legally-valid auction has been conducted and title then conveyed to the winning bidder, which oftentimes is the lender.
Until that auction takes place, which also must be conducted according to procedures stated in the contract and/or state law (and which usually includes notice of the auction date, time, and location to the owner), legally the car still belongs to the individual.
If a bankruptcy is filed by the owner, the "automatic stay" (a court order requiring debtors to stop enforcement action) comes into existence halting the auction. Our firm's practice is to immediately fax confirmation of the bankruptcy filing to the lender, and then make arrangements for the owner to pick up the car.
To keep the car, the owner must become current on the loan by paying all arrears, late fees and costs of repossession, and also make the regular payment going forward. The owner has to bring the loan current and re-start payments shortly after filing in Chapter 7, or the lender will ask the court for permission to "lift the stay" and proceed once again with the repo. Otherwise, if the owner has the money, or can raise it quickly, he can exercise redemption rights in Chapter 7 and fully pay off the car at its current value in a lump sum payment.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy offers additional options, such as paying the arrears and costs, through a plan of 36 to 60 months. And an even more powerful right exists in Chapter 13 to re-set high interest rates to a little more than prime, and/or pay only what the car is worth through the plan (if the owner has owned the car for more than two and half years, or the vehicle is used in his business) in what's known as a "cram down."
Automobile lenders are getting more aggressive and creative. Recently one of our clients had her car repossessed on a Sunday from a supermarket parking lot when she went out briefly for groceries. Obviously the lender staked out her home waiting for an opportunity.
It can happen, but remember that it's not the end of the story. There are still ways to fix it.