Friday, May 10, 2013

Auto Repossession Before Bankruptcy

The other day I received a call where an individual asked me whether filing bankruptcy would allow for a car that has been repossessed to be returned. Although my response probably failed to satisfy the caller (the usual attorney response of it depends), here is what is required in California (at least how the courts have viewed the law).

Background

In most vehicle contracts the lender retains a right to repossess a vehicle if the borrower fails to make the scheduled payments. With many contracts, this repossession can be done outside of any court proceedings.

However, once an individual files for bankruptcy many of the rules change. For one, an automatic stay is implemented. This stay prevents most actions against the debtor (individual that files for bankruptcy). Specifically, the automatic stay strictly prohibits any lawsuit or repossession against a debtor that is delinquent on car loan payments. Any repossession after a bankruptcy petition is filed constitutes a violation of the automatic stay, with the repossession void and of no effect. In that case, the lender would be immediately required to return the vehicle to the debtor.

Effect of Bankruptcy on Prepetition Repossession

Section 542 of the Bankruptcy Code requires that entities in possession of "property of the bankruptcy estate" are generally required to turn the property over to either the trustee (in Chapter 7) or the debtor (in Chapter 13). This big sticking point then for this turnover requirement is determining what is "property of the estate."

Section 541 of the Bankruptcy Code defines property of the estate. This definition includes "all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in possession as of the commencement of the case." Basically this definition states that whatever rights the debtor has at the commencement of the case continue in bankruptcy. As for the vehicle that has been repossessed, the court has to discover what rights a debtor had when the bankruptcy case was filed.

These rights are determine by state law (California State law). Under the California Civil Code (section 2983.2), a debtor has the right to redeem a repossessed vehicle up until the date the car is sold by the repossessing lender.

Two recent cases have come to different conclusions as to whether turnover of the vehicle is required upon the filing of the bankruptcy petition. First, in a case from the Southern District of California (In re: Fitch, 1998), the bankruptcy court held that while a repossessed car is property of the estate, the right to possess the car was transferred to the lender prior to the filing of the bankruptcy petition. The court interpreted the statutes to mean that the automatic stay freezes the positions of the debtor and creditors. Thus, the lender had the right to maintain possession. The court did state that a vehicle could be returned to a debtor upon the debtor's giving of adequate protection. In most cases adequate protection means the establishing of proof of insurance and proof that the debtor will be able to make the regular payments on the car.

In the Northern District of California (In re: Cortez, 2010), the Bankruptcy Court interpreted the Bankruptcy Code, and specifically the section on the automatic stay, to mean that a "knowing retention of estate property violates... the automatic stay." Because a debtor has the right to redeem until the date of a sale by the lender, the vehicle remains part of the estate, and subject to turnover. In this case, the debtor provided adequate protection to the secured creditor. However, the court seemed to say that it was not necessary for turnover.

What to do?

If your car has been repossessed, and you want to make sure you retain possession, bankruptcy may be a solution if you are not able to pay the balance before a lender's sale. However, while the Northern District seemed to state that adequate assurance is not necessary for turnover, it will ultimately be necessary to avoid a lender's motion for relief from the automatic stay. Be prepared to show (a) insurance, (b) regular and sufficient income, and (c) an ability to pay for the vehicle.