This article describes defaulting on a loan, lawful vs. wrongful repossession and reclaiming any personal property left in a repossessed vehicle.
State-mandated repossession laws give a lender the legal right to take your vehicle if you default on your loan agreement. In all states, failing to make payments provides legal grounds to start the auto repossession process. In some states, lapsed auto insurance also provides grounds. Understanding how the process works is vital, because although all states place limits on how a lender can take your vehicle, most allow this to occur without a court order and some do not require the lender to provide advance notice.
Contact an attorney or your state consumer protection agency, or read your purchase contract to see how your state defines the conditions under which repossession may occur. For example, your lender may have the right to take your vehicle if you miss even one payment. If you fall behind and remedy the situation by making payment arrangements, the Federal Trade Commission recommends that you get the agreement in writing. Although payment arrangements change the terms of the original contract, attorney Brandon A. Block cautions that some lenders will agree to a new payment plan, but then repossess the vehicle anyway. An oral agreement may be difficult to prove in court.
Lawful Repossession Procedures
Most states have "self-help" repossession laws that allow a lender to take your vehicle without a court order. However, laws vary on whether a lender must provide advance notice. For example, Wisconsin lenders must mail you a repossession notice 15 days before taking your vehicle. Regardless, repossession can take place at any time of the day or night. Your vehicle may be towed from your property or a public location.
State laws do not allow a repossession agent to breach the peace during repossession actions. Examples of "breach of the peace" conduct include:
Taking the vehicle over your objection
Using or threatening to use force to take the vehicle
Threatening arrest or other involvement by law enforcement
Forcing you to stop your vehicle while you’re driving
Breaking into a closed or locked garage, or entering without explicit permission
Damaging the vehicle
A breach of the peace constitutes wrongful repossession. Get professional legal advice if it occurs, as you may be entitled to compensatory damages or use it to avoid financial responsibility for paying a deficiency balance.
Repossession rights do not extend to any personal property inside your vehicle. After the repossession, a lender must provide instructions about to how retrieve personal items. In addition, most states require a lender to mail you a default notice explaining why your vehicle was repossessed and what you must do to get it back. For example, Ohio lenders must send two notices within five days of repossession: one explaining the reasons for repossession and the other explaining how to get your vehicle back.
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