Car Repossessions in Wisconsin
Here's a quick guide to your rights (and remedies) related to car repossessions in Wisconsin. Nothing replaces a (free) phone consult with a consumer lawyer, but this is a good starting place for you.
My car might be taken!You're behind on car payment and bracing for a repossession. While your creditor may attempt to take your car, you still have rights that must be respected in that process. If your creditor tramples those rights, you may be entitled to sue them and get your car back - and keep it for free! More on this in a moment. First, let's run through the basics of repossession law, your rights, and your role in this process.
When can my creditor take my car?Creditors can begin the process of repossession when you are in "default" on your car loan. Assuming you don't cure your defaulted loan your lender can do one of two things: 1) sue you in court and ask for the car back or 2) send you a letter in the mail indicating they want to do a "self-help" repossession.
What if they sue me for my car?Get a consult with a lawyer and talk about your options. It may either be time to file a Chapter 13 or 7 bankruptcy, or to look at other debt relief options. No one should attempt to show up at court before they consult with or retain a lawyer. All good consumer lawyers offer a free initial consultation, so there's no risk involved. If you are successfully sued, or have a court order to repossess your car, you still have rights related to any attempt they make at a "self-help repossession." We talk about these scenarios below.
What if they send me a letter saying they're repossessing my car?Most creditors want to take the cost-effective route of repossessing your car without the time and expense of court. Since 2006, they've been allowed to do this. But there's a catch; they have to send you written notice to your last known mailing address. So, changing addresses and not telling them ends up hurting you here. The letter they send must contain some specific details. Those details are
1) The name, address, and telephone number of the merchant, a brief identification of the consumer credit transaction, and a brief description of the collateral or goods.
2) A statement that, as a result of the customer's default on the consumer credit transaction, the merchant may have the right to take possession of the collateral or goods without further notice or court proceeding.
3) A statement that if the customer is not in default or objects to the merchant's right to take possession of the collateral or goods, the customer may, no later than 15 days after the merchant has given the notice, demand that the merchant proceed in court by notifying the merchant in writing.
4) A statement that if the merchant proceeds in court, the customer may be required to pay court costs and attorney fees.
Let's break this down into normal non-lawyer language. They're going to send you a letter stating that you're behind on vehicle payments, and that you have 15 days from the date of the letter to object in writing to them taking your car. If you object in writing, your creditor then has to sue you. You have this 15-day window between the letter and when they can take your car. This window of time is VERY important.
However, as simple as this sounds, there are creditors that still mess up this required notice. Here are some ways it happens: a) The letters don't contain the right language, b) They don't wait 15 days before repossession, c) They don't send it to your last known mailing address, d) You object to the repossession (and tell them to take you to court), and they still take your car.
If you get one of these "15-day repo" letters, you should call a lawyer right away. Talk with them about your options, what you should do, and if objecting to the out of court repossession makes sense. If you can't talk to a lawyer, we recommend your better route is to object. That way you have a chance to plead your case to the court, protect your car until the court date, and talk with a lawyer about your options.
The repossession itself- the MOST important partYou're sitting at your house and you see a tow-truck in your driveway. Most people throw in the towel and assume there's nothing they can do. WRONG. You have a right to object to the taking of your vehicle. All you have to do is run outside (or wherever the repossession agent happens to be) and tell them to stop the repossession. You don't have to throw a hissy-fit; a calm and clear protest to the repossession works. Break out your smartphone at this moment and start taking pictures. A video or audio recording is even better. Record the interaction with the repossession agent. Make sure you save those recordings and pictures. At this moment the repossession agent MUST stop the repossession. While he might come back later and try again, he has to stop the repossession. If he doesn't, they will have been deemed to "breach the peace" in the repossession. This gives you a legal case against the repossession that could result in you owning your car - for free.
Also during the repossession, the agent cannot enter any garage or locked space. Nor can they call the police and use them to assist in the act of repossession (this can be different if they've already sued you in court for the repossession, so talk with a lawyer about that). I can't stress enough that you need to go confront the repossession agent before he leaves with your car. Once your car is taken without your protest, your rights are likely significantly less.
After the repossessionIf they took your car without the letter, or over your verbal protest of the repossession, go contact a lawyer right away. In these situations, our firm files a case as soon as possible for our clients. We also discuss how to gather and preserve the crucial evidence about your case and the repossession. Again, all good consumer lawyers offer free consultations, so if you're not sure if you have a case, just pick up the phone and request a consultation.
Money owed after the repossession and sale of the carIn Wisconsin, you can be liable for something called a "deficiency" balance owed after a repossession. To come after you, the lender is required to sell the car in a "commercially reasonable manner." It's not a case you want to bring on your own, because it will involve expert witnesses, a court case, and extensive legal experience. Your lender will send you a letter stating you owe them a deficiency, and how the dollar amount was calculated. Call a good consumer lawyer to see if you have a case here.
What happens if I have a case for an illegal repossession?As previously stated, save all your pictures and recordings from the repossession. These are extremely important to your case, and will be helpful to your attorney. Look for a consumer lawyer here on Avvo to discuss your situation with.