The Differences Between a Charge Off and Repossession in Bankruptcy

Learn the difference between a charge off and a repossession and how they're handled in bankruptcy cases.

By , Attorney · Capital University Law School
Updated by Carron Nicks, Attorney (Tulane University School of Law)

A charge off and a repossession are two very different things—although both could happen to one debt. In this article, you'll learn what each term means, as well as how the bankruptcy court handles these events in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

What Is a Charge Off?

"Charge off" is an accounting term that simply means that the account has been removed from the company's books because no payments have been made in 120 to 180 days (depending on the type of account.)

Most people come across the term "charge off" after reviewing a credit report. Because a charge off is associated with an unpaid debt, many assume that charged off means that the debt is no longer collectible and that you no longer owe the money. That's not the case.

A notation of a charge off indicates that the lender is no longer showing the account as a bad debt on the bottom line. That usually doesn't stop the lender's collection efforts. The lender can continue trying to collect the debt. Often the lender will transfer or sell the debt to a collection agency. In turn, the collection agency either collects the debt for the lender or, if the collection agency purchased the debt, collects it for its own benefit. Either way, a charge off is merely an accounting term, and you still owe the debt.

The Federal Reserve requires a lender to charge off a credit card debt when it is 180 days late. A car loan or installment loan must be charged off when it is 120 days late.

Learn more about debt buyers and how to negotiate with them.

Can a Charged Off Loan be Reinstated?

Once a loan is charged off, don't count on the loan showing up on the company's books again. Even if you offer to pay it, chances are it's been transferred or sold and the original company no longer has an interest in it. If you pay the debt, the company that purchased the account should show that you paid it off, but unfortunately, the original lender can continue reporting the charge off for seven years.

How are Charge Offs Treated In Bankruptcy?

When you file for bankruptcy, you agree to disclose your entire financial situation in exchange for the benefits provided by the chapter that you file. (Find out which bankruptcy will be better for you in What Is the Difference Between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?)

You must list all debts when you fill out your bankruptcy paperwork—including charged off accounts. If you don't list them, you risk the debts not being discharged (wiped out). All kinds of debt can be charged off, including car loans and other debt secured by collateral, and unsecured debt, like a credit card balance, medical bill, or personal loan. If you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you can expect the court to discharge the charged-off debt within three to four months (the average time it takes for a Chapter 7 case to end). In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you'll pay any discretionary income—the amount remaining after paying allowed monthly expenses—to your unsecured creditors over the course of your Chapter 13 bankruptcy payment plan. All eligible unsecured debts get discharged when you complete your plan.

If the charge off is a secured debt—such as a car loan or mortgage—then you've likely already lost the collateral (the house or the car) through repossession (see below) or foreclosure. In that case, you'll list the account as an unsecured debt in your bankruptcy paperwork.

If a debt has been charged off but you still have the collateral, and you'd like to keep it, you should speak with a bankruptcy attorney as soon as possible.

(Do you want to keep a car in bankruptcy? Find out how in Can You File Bankruptcy on a Car Loan and Keep the Car?)

What Is a Repossession?

A repossession occurs when a creditor takes possession of the collateral—usually a car—that you put up when taking out a loan. Here's how it works.

Before a lender agrees to lend you money for a car purchase, you must agree to guarantee payment of the loan with the vehicle. The contract creates a lien in favor of the lender. The lien allows the lender to take the car, sell it, and apply the sales proceeds to the loan if you default on your payment. If the auction price isn't enough to pay off the loan, you'll still owe the remainder called a "deficiency balance." (The lender releases the lien on the car after you pay the loan balance.)

Can a Loan on a Repossessed Car be Reinstated?

If you lose the car to repossession, most state laws will give you some time to get the car back. The process is called "reinstating the loan." Reinstatement requires you to pay any past-due amount, as well as the lender's costs for the repossession.

Repossessions can occur with property other than cars as well. Furniture, jewelry, and other personal property pledged to secure a loan can be repossessed, as long as the lender follows the state laws.

(To learn more about foreclosure of mortgages on real property, visit What is Foreclosure?)

Can a Car Loan be Charged Off Without a Repossession?

It's possible to charge off a loan without having the dealer repossess the car. As stated earlier, car loans are supposed to be charged off if no payment has been made for 120 days. But, unsecured debt, like credit cards or medical accounts, can stay on the books until they're 180 days old. Usually, a lender will repossess the collateral and sell it, long before 120 days pass. Almost always, the proceeds of the sale won't be enough to cover what's owed on the loan, and most lenders will need to charge off the remaining balance.

No law requires the lender to repossess the collateral before charging off the loan. The lender could choose to do it the other way around or could choose not to repossess the car at all. The lender might be forced to forgo repossession if the car can't be located or if the car's value is less than it would cost to sell at auction (for instance, if the car was totaled in an accident). The lack of a repossession doesn't alter the need to charge off the loan or prevent the lender from selling the charged off loan to a debt buyer.

How are Repossessions Treated In Bankruptcy?

If your car is repossessed before the bankruptcy is filed, you might be able to reinstate the loan and regain possession of the car, but you have to work quickly. You'll have to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case and propose a three to five-year repayment plan.

In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, it's possible to reinstate a loan by including it in your repayment plan. In fact, this is one of the key benefits of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. Not only will it stop a repossession (or a foreclosure) in its tracks, but you can spread out your payment arrearages over the repayment plan rather than paying the entire overdue amount right away. You'll have to continue paying your monthly payments, too, but by the end of the payment plan, you'll own the car free and clear. If you don't want to keep the car, the balance owed will get discharged (wiped out) with other qualifying debt at the end of your plan.

Filing a Chapter 7 case instead will not help you get your car back, because Chapter 7 has no mechanism for getting you caught up or reinstating the loan.

(For more information, read What Bankruptcy Can and Cannot Do.)

Which is Worse: Charge Off or Repossession?

If you default on your car loan, you could suffer a charge off, a repossession, or both. It's hard to know whether the charge off or the repossession looks worse on your credit report. Credit scores are based on all the information in your credit report, good and bad, and the credit reporting agencies and companies that produce credit scores like the FICO score keep their scoring models a secret. Someone having trouble with one account like a car loan often has difficulty keeping other accounts in line. Your credit score can take a hit from late car payments, repossessions, past due credit card payments, judgments, tax liens, and other negative or derogatory entries.

Experience tells us that both a repossession and a charge off of the car loan can cause a significant hit, maybe as much as 100 points. Not only will both a repossession and a charge off have a profound effect on your score in the short run, but they will also continue to influence your credit score and the credit decisions of potential lenders for seven years (although the derogatory information has less effect on your credit score the older it gets.)

Learn more about credit reports and credit scores.

Learn more about how to clean up your credit report and improve your credit score.

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