Chances are you rely on your vehicle to get you where you need to go — and when you need to go — whether it’s to work, school, the grocery store, or the soccer field. But if you’re late with your car payments, or in some states, if you don’t have adequate auto insurance, your vehicle could be taken away from you.
When you finance or lease a vehicle, your creditor or lessor has important rights that end once you’ve paid off your loan or lease obligation. These rights are established by the contract you signed and the law of your state. For example, if you don’t make timely payments on the vehicle, your creditor may have the right to “repossess” — or take back your car without going to court or warning you in advance. Your creditor also may be able to sell your contract to a third party, called an assignee, who may have the same right to seize the car as the original creditor.
The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that your creditor’s rights may be limited. Some states impose rules about how your creditor may repossess the vehicle and resell it to reduce or eliminate your debt. Creditors that violate any rules may lose other rights against you, or have to pay you damages.
Seizing the Vehicle
In many states, your creditor can seize your vehicle as soon as you default on your loan or lease. Your contract should state what constitutes a default, but failure to make a payment on time is a typical example.
However, if your creditor agrees to change your payment date, the terms of your original contract may not apply any longer. If your creditor agrees to such a change, make sure you have it in writing. Oral agreements are difficult to prove.
Once you are in default, the laws of most states permit the creditor to repossess your car at any time, without notice, and to come onto your property to do so. But when seizing the vehicle, your creditor may not commit a “breach of the peace.” In some states, that means using physical force, threats of force, or even removing your car from a closed garage without your permission.
Should there be a breach of the peace in seizing your car, your creditor may be required to pay a penalty or to compensate you if any harm is done to you or your property. A breach of peace also may give you a legal defense if your creditor sues you to collect a “deficiency judgment” — that is, the difference between what you owe on the contract (plus repossession and sale expenses) and what your creditor gets from the resale of your vehicle.