When you take out a loan to buy a car, you usually sign a contract that gives the lender a security interest in the vehicle. Depending on the terms of the contract and state law, the lender might be able to take the car away from you, without suing you in court first, if you default on the loan by not making payments or by failing to have car insurance, for example. The process of taking the car from you is called "repossession." Each state has its own rules regarding repossession.
If your car lender repossesses your car, van, motorcycle, SUV, or another motor vehicle, you'll need to examine your goals and decide if it's worth paying for an attorney to help you. In some cases—say the lender repossessed your car even though you weren't actually late on payments or you want to avoid a deficiency judgment—you probably need a lawyer to assist you. In other instances, like if you were late on payments but have money available and want to keep the car, it often makes sense to use that money to reinstate the loan or redeem the repossessed car rather than hire an attorney.
Below are some situations where you should consider hiring, or at least consulting with, an attorney if your car is repossessed.
If the lender repossesses the car while you're current on your payments according to the contract and not in default for some other reason, you might need an attorney to file a lawsuit to recover the vehicle.
Even if the loan agreement doesn't give you a grace period for late payments, if the lender has accepted late payments from you in the past without declaring a default, or did other things to change the terms of the loan agreement—like changing the payment due date—your attorney can address this in the suit, and you might be able to get your car back.
Under the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), a lender must get a court order before it can repossess your car if:
The SCRA is extensive and complex. If you're on active duty, an attorney can inform you about all of your rights under this law.
Once your car has been repossessed, the lender will most likely sell it at a public or private auction. If the proceeds from the sale don't cover the balance of the loan, the difference between the sale price and the total debt is called a "deficiency."
In most states, your lender can sue you to collect the deficiency. If the lender gets a deficiency judgment, it can generally get this amount from you by using regular collection techniques, like garnishing your wages or directing your bank to turn over funds from your account to pay the debt (called "levying" your account).
The following are a few situations where you probably don't need to hire an attorney after your car has been repossessed.
If you know you can't keep up with the payments, and you don't want the car back, it's probably not necessary to hire an attorney—unless you're eventually sued for a deficiency balance, which might not even happen. The lender could choose not to pursue a deficiency judgment, and some states place limits on deficiency balances after repossession. For example, deficiency judgments sometimes aren't allowed if:
If you want the car back and have sufficient money available to reinstate the loan or redeem the vehicle, you probably don't need to hire an attorney.
Reinstating the loan. In some states and under some loan agreements, you may reinstate your loan by paying the past-due amount plus the costs of repossession and related expenses. If you reinstate the loan, you must make future payments on time and meet the other terms of your reinstated contract to avoid another repossession.
Redeeming the car. You can generally reclaim the car if you pay off the entire loan balance, including repossession costs, called "redeeming" the vehicle.
When your lender sells the repossessed car at an auction, you can attend and bid on the vehicle. Keep in mind that you could still be on the hook for any deficiency if you buy the car at the auction.
Again, you probably don't need to hire an attorney if you want to redeem the vehicle, reinstate the loan, or buy the car at the auction. But if you think your vehicle was unlawfully repossessed and the lender won't help you, you should consider hiring or at least consulting with a local attorney. An attorney can tell you if the lender's actions were against the law, as well as help you get your car back by raising any illegalities either directly to the lender or by filing a lawsuit in court.