Car Care

How to Repossess a Car From a Family Member

It’s not pleasant when you have to take a family member to task for non-payment, but it can happen. In fact, it’s a common enough story when it comes to car transactions.

For example, a well-meaning person allows their sibling to purchase a car from them on a payment plan…but then the payments stop because they “can’t afford them”, but they won’t give the car back. What next? You’ve tried to get the money, but the family member refuses to pay. How can you get your car back with the least amount of drama? 

The best way to repossess a car from a family member is to follow these steps. Make sure that your paperwork is in order, find the car (this should be simple if it is a family member), have a key made ahead of time, check the VIN number against your paperwork, and take the car back when there is the least chance of confrontation. 

We’ll explore in this article some of the best ways to ensure that the process goes smoothly, and what to do in certain scenarios that you may not have anticipated. 

Have Your Paperwork Ready

Even when dealing with family, you should always use a written contract and keep scrupulous documentation. In the case of a car, your best bet is to hold on to the title of the car until the vehicle is paid in full by the recipient. 

If you sign the title over to a person, make sure that you have a contract with clear language that defines precisely what constitutes default of the loan, whether or not you need to issue a warning before repossession, and whether you are giving the buyer a grace period. 

Become Familiar with the Law

In the best of circumstances, the ins and outs of legal tangles are tricky things. They can become even more painful when dealing with the high emotion of family altercations. Become familiar with some of the larger points of the laws of possession, so that you aren’t caught off guard. Some starting points:

  • Most states will allow the defaulter the right to redeem the car by paying off the full amount, essentially “buying back” the car at the agreed upon price. If you are looking to get your money, this shouldn’t be a problem. 
  • If re-selling the repossessed car, the lender is required to ensure that this is done in a “commercially reasonable” manner. It must be sold at a fair price, after advertising fairly. 
  • Keep a record of your expenditures. When collecting for a repossessed car, the lender is usually entitled not only to the unpaid amount on the car, but also costs related to the repossession (making keys, hiring a locksmith, etc.), and costs of resale such as an auctioneer or advertisements

Ensure That You Have a Way into the Car

When repossessing, you are not entitled to break into the car in a way that causes damage to the vehicle. You may do one of the following to get access to take it away:

  1. Make A Key: Have a key made ahead of time by retrieving the key code from the dealership where you purchased the car. This can often be found on the title, or may be discovered by matching the VIN number. 
  2. Tow The Car: You can have the car towed. You may do this yourself, or hire a towing company.
  3. Call A Locksmith: Pick the car lock passing a Slim Jim or bent hanger down the window to pull the door lock up. You can find out to hotwire a car at many sources online. 

Find the Car

When dealing with a family member, finding the vehicle in question shouldn’t be too difficult. What you do want to consider is the best time to look for and approach the car.

You know your family member best and whether they will react in a confrontational way. In any case, it is probably best to look for the car while the defaulter is away from it…possibly when they’re at work or out of the house. 

Avoid a Breach of Peace

When repossessing your car, take care to avoid doing anything that can constitute a breach of peace. You are not entitled to break the law to get your car back. This means that you may not do the following things when retrieving your car. 

You may not cause a physical altercation. If the defaulter sees you and tries to stop you from taking your car by blocking you or standing in the way, you may not take any kind of physical action to repossess. If they are onto you at this point, you may need to get the law involved. 

You may not break into a person’s home to retrieve either car or keys. If the car is locked in a garage, you will have to get legal assistance. Retrieving the car from an open garage is an iffy prospect…you’ll want to drill down into the particular laws of your state or county. If you can’t get to the keys, you will have to tow the car or have a key made as previously covered. 

You may not cause damage to the car when repossessing, even if you are just trying to get the car door open. That means, no breaking a window or jimmying the lock in such a way as to cause any kind of scratching. Be careful how you get in. 

Only Take Your Own Property

While you may have the right to repossess your car, you are not permitted to take anything that is not your own property.

Therefore, be smart and check the car for any equipment that may have been added (for instance, an expensive stereo or camera system), or anything they may be storing in the car. 

You must return any of the defaulter’s own property to them, or at least notifying them in writing where and when they can collect it. If you fail to do so, they are within legal bounds to sue you for the value of their personal property. 

Watch Out for Bankruptcy

Do not proceed with the repossession if the defaulter notifies you at any point during the process that they have declared bankruptcy. You must stop the proceedings at whichever point you receive this information.

If you already have the car, you may hold it securely, but do not go ahead with any sale or advertising of the car sale. Talk to the bankruptcy trustee before allowing any sale to go through. If you go ahead with any action after receiving news of bankruptcy, you could be considered in violation of federal law. 

What if I Don’t Feel Comfortable Doing the Repossession Myself? 

If you are someone who is non-confrontational, or if you know that your family member could become angry or dangerous, do not attempt to do the repossession alone. If you have your paperwork in order, the best route may be to get help from law enforcement.

Bring all relevant paperwork (car title, contract, proof of non-payment) to the police, and see if they can send an officer along to take care of the issue. Be sure that if you are seeking help from law enforcement that you do in fact have all of your paperwork completed and at hand. Otherwise, there isn’t much they can do for you. 

If you only had an oral contract or incomplete paperwork related to the sale, you always have the option to try to have a lawyer work your case. However, keep in mind that there isn’t likely much they can do in this scenario. You may get lucky if you have a particularly skilled lawyer, but you may have to take the loss. 

The Bottom Line on Repossessing a Car from a Family Member

No matter the individual case, repossessing from a family member is not going to be a pleasant scenario. For this reason, you want to make sure from the very beginning that you are completely in the right by crossing every t and dotting every i during the entire process, so that you don’t end up having to fight or justify any of your actions in a court of law. 

Have all of your paperwork at hand and make sure that it is easy to navigate as you complete each step of the process. Be ready to prove that the family member did indeed default on their loan, and make sure that you have given them every bit of legal recourse owed. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching yourself (if your family member may get confrontational or violent), talk to police about an escort. 

When you are sure of your position, work quickly and work smart so that there is the least resistance. Repossession isn’t fun, especially in the case of family members, but by doing your research and working step by step you can ensure that the job can be done with the least amount of unpleasantness. 

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