How Do I Get a Title for an Untitled Vehicle?

by Scott Krohn

A missing certificate of title can prevent the legal transfer of the ownership of a vehicle from a seller to a buyer. The process of getting or replacing a title depends on the owner on record with the DMV, individual state laws, and whether a financial institution is listed with the DMV as a lien holder.

Clearing Lienholders

A financial institution that provided financing for the purchase of a vehicle usually holds the certificate of title as a lienholder to secure its interest in the car. In a situation where a seller still owes money on the loan for the car, the lien will prevent the transfer of ownership to a buyer until the loan has been satisfied. To release the lien, the seller can pay a lump sum to the financial institution to cover the balance of the loan. If that isn’t feasible, the seller can ask for an arrangement where the buyer makes one payment to the lienholder to satisfy the loan and then pays the seller the remaining balance. With the loan vacated, the bank can be removed as a lien holder, a clean title can be generated and the seller can transfer ownership to the buyer.

Getting a Duplicate Title

If the title has been lost or damaged and the seller is still the owner on record with the state DMV or equivalent office, getting a duplicate title can provide a solution. The process varies from state to state, but usually requires a duplicate title application, the vehicle identification number, a photo ID of the person listed on the title and the payment of a state-specific fee. If the title was lost after the transaction and transfer of ownership, the same process can be used by the new owner to apply for a duplicate.

Bonded Title

If a car is purchased without a title and ordering a duplicate is not feasible, the buyer can apply for a bonded title. The application process usually requires proof of ownership in the form of a bill of sale, state-required documents and payment to the company that issues the bond. Once approved, the buyer can take the certificate of bond to the state DMV to get a bonded title. Generally speaking, if ownership of the vehicle is not successfully challenged in court for 3 years, the bonded title can be converted to a standard certificate of title.

Death of the Seller

If the seller of a vehicle dies after receiving payment from the buyer but before releasing ownership, the vehicle may revert to the decedent’s estate. In this situation, the buyer needs to find out how the vehicle is going to be treated in the estate and who will ultimately be authorized to sign the title to facilitate a legal transfer of ownership.

If the vehicle is part of a small estate that doesn’t require probate, a surviving spouse or an executor that was appointed in the will may be able to sign the title to release ownership. If the estate goes to probate, the court will appoint either an executor or an administrator to distribute assets, including the vehicle that was purchased without delivery of the title. Regardless of process, having documentation related to the purchase including the bill of sale, receipts and a canceled check can help to prove ownership and get the title to the vehicle.

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