October 20, 2018

Does the Name on the Car Title Matter?

As a bankruptcy lawyer, I have to deal with the consequence of what I call “real world” activities.    In the non-bankruptcy world people make decisions that will save money and make life easier.  For example, blog reader Lou writes me with a question about car titles:

I might need to file chapter 13 in the future.  I filed a Chapter 7 in 2003 and now have a lot of credit card debt.  I have a house but I do not want to keep it. When the house goes into foreclosure the only property I will have in my name is 3 cars valued from $6000 to $8000 each.  I only own one of them.  The other two belong to my parents.  I got loans in my name for the cars because I got the best rates, but when they were paid off I never signed the titles over to my parents.  In a ch. 13 will all the cars be considered mine, or is there a way to prove that they belong to my parents?  My name is the only name on the titles.

It appears to me that Lou and his parents made a common sense decision at a time when bankruptcy was not a consideration.  Lou most likely qualified for better rates because he was working so he made a decision to help out his parents by applying for car loans in his name.   His parents have made all the payments so as far as they and Lou are concerned the cars belong to the parents.

Unfortunately this is not how the bankruptcy court will look at things.   If the title to the vehicle shows Lou’s name only, all three cars belong to him.   If he files a Chapter 13 in Georgia, he can exempt up to $3,500 in vehicle equity but that is it.   Lou’s Chapter 13 will have to account for any non-exempt equity, as follows:

Let’s assume that all three vehicles are paid for and that each are worth $7,000.  That would be $21,000 of equity in vehicles.   In Georgia, Lou could exempt $3,500 of equity, leaving $17,500 of non-exempt equity.  Lou can also use half of his real estate exemption to shelter the vehicles.   In Georgia, the real estate exemption is $10,000, which means that Lou can use $5,000 of exemption and apply to the vehicles.  $17,500 – $5,000 = $12,500.  Georgia law also provides for a wild card exemption of $400 that applies to any property – I typically use that for cash and checking accounts so let’s leave that out of the mix.  For our example, Lou has $12,500 of “non-exempt” equity.

If Lou was able to qualify for Chapter 7, the trustee would have the right to sell the vehicles to liquidate $12,500, which would be used to pay claims of the Chapter 7 estate.   $12,500 is 25% of $50,000.  In a Chapter 13, therefore, Lou would have to pay back at least 25% of his unsecured debt.

Note that for purposes of this analysis, I did not address any means test problems which might arise from Lou’s household income.  Additionally, I think that Lou could face an objection from the Chapter 13 trustee regarding his need for three vehicles.  If Lou’s parents are not dependent upon him, the trustee might take the position that three vehicles are not essential for Lou’s financial rehabilitation.   As far as the trustee is concerned, the rights of Lou’s creditors may trump the needs of Lou’s parents.   In other words, should Lou’s creditors have to deal with the risk inherent in Lou being on the hook for two vehicles he does not drive?   In my experience, the Chapter 13 trustee would object to Lou keeping all three vehicles – his solution would be to pay a higher dividend (i.e. more than 25%) to the unsecured creditors.

As you can see, a simple question arising from a non-bankruptcy decision can have all kinds of bankruptcy implications.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Ginsberg represents honest, hardworking men and women in the Atlanta area who need personal bankruptcy protection. In practice for over 25 years, Jonathan teaches bankruptcy law and practice at legal continuing education seminars and he is a founding member of the Bankruptcy Law Network. Jonathan lives with his wife and children in Atlanta.


  1. Does a loan company have the legal right to upcharge on interest rates on an existing vehicle loan of 5% to 25% during the bankruptcy process?

  2. My husband has been paying on a 6 yr. truck loan @ 5% for 31/2 yrs. The loan and truck is in the name of a friend who lives in Georgia. We have recently been informed that this person has filed bankruptcy. We have been told by this person that the loan company is changing the terms of the loan contract to 25% interest. The truck is a 2005 Ford F150 and that we will have to pay over $25,000 to keep the truck or give it back to the individual. The truck probably has around $5,000 equity if that. We have elected to return the vehicle and will lose all the equity we have paid into this vehicle, plus the vehicle which we were intending to payoff in the next several months. Can the loan company change the terms of an existing loan contract?

  3. BlueinFlorida says:

    My husbands car which he paid for and is paid for is in his Mothers name. She also has her name on his brother and his wifes’ cars and a friends car as well as on an old junk car. She was about to sign the title over to him finally because he finished paying them for it and it was paid off. His Dad is about to file bankruptcy. Now she says she can’t sign it over to him like they had planned. I am mad. It is his car , he paid for and worked hard to pay for, and she is afraid it will look like she is hiding something, when in fact this was always the agreement. She says they won’t take it and that it isn’t worth anything, but in fact it is a 2000 Jeep Cherokee in fair condition probably worth between 5K and 6K dollars.Also she said that it is in fact his Dad who is filing for bankruptcy so it shouldn’t matter, but I need more concrete info. My husband slaves for less than $10 an hour with type 1 diabetes. He worked hard for that car and will be in dire straights without it.

  4. Blue:
    I suspect that your father-in-law and his bankruptcy attorney are worried about whether the transfer of title from your mother-in-law to your husband would be considered a fraudulent transfer that could affect your father-in-law’s bankruptcy (see my post at http://www.thebklawyer.com/thebkblog/2005/06/09/fraudulent-transfer-of-assets-in-georgia/). I can’t speak to Florida law, but assuming the principles are similar to how it works in Georgia, I would also advise any potential BK filer not to transfer any assets or to have his wife transfer any assets until after the bankruptcy case is over.
    If the vehicle fits within one of the exemptions, it will pass through bankruptcy. Assuming Florida law works like Georgia law, the title of a vehicle carries with it a presumption of ownership, meaning that in the eyes of the law, your mother-in-law is the “owner” of the vehicle. I do not know what rights your husband has. That would be something for a Florida lawyer to discuss with you.
    It might be worth a call to a Florida bankruptcy lawyer to discuss – Jonathan Alpert, Chip Parker or Carmen Dellutri are three Florida bankruptcy lawyers who are all very knowledgeable and may be able to help.

  5. My boyfriend just bought a truck and wants to put the title in his name but he’s under his mother’s insurance. Does it matter who’s name is on the title to mess up the insurance? He paid for it and everything so shouldn’t the title be in his name?

  6. i live in texas. i bought a car from my sister. i went to transfer title to my name. car is insured but not in my name . lady said ever whos name is going on title insurance also has to b same name. i thought as long as car was insured i was legal

  7. mike patch says:

    trying to sell a car in Minnesota. When I baught this truck with my ex wife the delier put are name on the title as her OR myself. Im now trying to sell the truck and they say she has to sign it also. we are devoriced and have NO contact with each other.

  8. Mike, generally if someone’s name is on a title, that person has some claim of legal ownership of the asset. If your ex-wife will not voluntarily sign the title over to you, you may have to ask a judge to rule that she has no legal interest in the truck.

  9. Jonathan: I have a similar situation to Lou’s. Except the title is under my mother’s name (primary signature) and my name (co-signature). I have been the only person paying for it, and I am about to pay it off this month. My mom has not filed yet, but will soon. As soon as we get the title I was planning on changing it so that it is just under my name. Will this be an issue? I can prove that the payments have only come from my personal bank account… I do not want to lose the car I have worked so hard to pay for….

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