What happens when a person dies? It’s a question that’s been asked throughout the ages. Different schools of thought have different answers. But there’s another question surrounding the death of a person that’s a little less mysterious: what happens to a person’s car when they die?
And it’s a good question. After all, many people have a car, some have several. In many cities, a car is a necessity for getting around. And while there may be general expectations within a family for how inheritance will be passed down or what will happen to the house, the car that’s parked out front will also have to be accounted for and dealt with when a loved one passes on.
Everything that a person owns is known as their estate. When they die, whether they had an Estate Plan in place or not, their estate must be settled – their assets totaled, their debts paid, and their money and their possessions legally transferred to their beneficiaries. Oftentimes, when a person dies, difficulties in handling their estate arise. Changing the name on a vehicle is just one such difficulty. Handling estate matters like transferring ownership of a car on top of the grief and other emotional challenges that the death of a loved one can bring, may seem complicated during an already trying time in life. But, there are steps to make the process as easy as possible. Keep reading for a step-by-step guide on transferring car ownership after a death and learn some alternative options too.
What happens to a vehicle when the owner dies?
When a car-owner dies, what happens to the deceased person’s car is just one of the many things their family and loved ones will have to deal with. Commonly, if the car is in good enough condition, it will be given or sold to a new owner. Transferring ownership of a vehicle after its owner dies, however, is not as simple as just taking some cash for it or handing its keys to a friend or family member. Owning a car means owning its title – the name on the car title is the vehicles’ legal owner. Renting instead? If you’re wondering what happens to a car lease after the lessee's death, you can check out our guide here.
So first, whose name is on the title? Is the deceased the only owner of the car, or was it owned jointly, say, as in the case of a married couple sharing ownership of one car? Next, determine whether the car is a part of a probated estate. If the estate of the deceased is in Probate, there is a legal process for distributing their assets to their rightful beneficiaries that must be adhered to, and Probate Court proceedings that must be carried out.
How to transfer ownership of a car after death
Often, family and other beneficiaries of a person’s estate will decide to keep the car, sell or gift it to another friend, family member, or charitable organization, or sell it as a used car to an unrelated buyer (check out our guide on how to sell a deceased person’s car). In any of these cases, the ownership of the car must be able to be transferred from its former owner to its new owner. How you will do so depends on:
If the car was jointly-owned – does the car title have one person’s name on it or two names? If the car was owned by the deceased person and another person, the surviving owner will now be the car’s only owner and will need to change the title to reflect that.
If the deceased car owner was the car’s sole owner – If the person who died was the only owner of the car, the title will also have to be changed, depending on who the new owner of the car will be.
If the car is part of a Probated Estate – If the car is going through Probate along with the deceased’s other property, the car title cannot be transferred to a new owner until the Probate process is complete. During this process, an Executor of the Estate will be designated, and they will be in charge of transferring the title at the appropriate time, with the appropriate documents.
If the Estate is not in Probate – If the estate of the deceased person is not in Probate, meaning there was a Will or other estate planning measures had been taken prior to their death, transferring the title will be quicker and easier than waiting for the Probate process to conclude.
Documents Required for Title Transfer
Consulting with a legal and Probate professional in your state can be a good idea before transferring the car. Whether the car was owned only by the deceased person, was jointly owned, or if the car is part of a probated estate, the Executor will need the following documents:
An order from Probate Court allowing for the vehicle transfer
The Certificate of the Title
The Death Certificate for the former owner
An Odometer Disclosure Statement
The Transfer Fee
If the vehicle was not in probate, the joint owner or the person who inherited the car can transfer the title to its new owner. The specifics of the transfer may vary slightly from state to state, but generally, the following documents can be taken to your local Title Office to complete the title transfer:
The Car Title
The Death Certificate for the former owner
Occasionally, an Affidavit to transfer the vehicle without probate will need to be completed, if someone else other than the beneficiary is in possession of the car. These Affidavits can be found online for most states. After completing the Affidavit to transfer the vehicle, the other transfer steps will still need to be taken.
Lost title when the owner is deceased
What if when trying to see whose name is on the car title, you realize you can’t find the title? It’s lost. Now what? You will need a title for the car, but the good news is if it has been lost, ownership of the car can still be transferred. The beneficiary of the car or the next of kin to the deceased person should take the Death certificate and proof of their relation to the deceased to their state DMV office and request a new title.
Creating an Estate Plan for your car and other assets
What happens to your assets after you die doesn’t have to be complicated. Creating a Will and the other estate planning documents you need can be a great help to your family members and Beneficiaries when the time comes. Here at Trust & Will, our goal is to make it easy to plan how your possessions will be passed down to your loved ones. Not sure where to start? Take our free quiz to see where you should start or compare our different packages to find the right plan for you. Get started today!