How to Transfer a Vehicle Title After Death

by Scott Krohn

The procedure for transferring a vehicle title after the death of an owner differs depending on the way that the vehicle was titled, whether the title was held by one or more people and the laws of each state. The size of the decedent's estate also makes a difference as title transfers for cars included in small estates can often be accomplished without going to court, while larger estates may require a full probate process.

Titles That Transfer on Death

Fourteen states offer Transfer on Death registrations, which allows vehicle owners to name a beneficiary on the certificate of title. States that offer transfer on death registration for individuals only include California, Connecticut and Ohio. Titles that have been recorded with two owners can be executed with transfer on death instructions in Arizona, Nevada and Missouri. Upon the death of the individual owner or the surviving spouse, depending on the state, the beneficiary can take a certified copy of the the death certificate and the transfer on death title to the state Department of Motor Vehicles or equivalent office, which will transfer the title.

Transfer to a Surviving Spouse

After the death of one owner, a vehicle title that has been recorded with joint tenancy or community property automatically passes to the surviving spouse without the need to go through probate. Under these circumstances, to transfer title the surviving spouse is usually required to present a certified copy of the death certificate and the title. Depending on the state, an Affidavit of Surviving Spouse form may be required as well. A similar process can be used to transfer ownership to the surviving spouse when a title recorded with only the decedent's name doesn't go to probate under a small estate exemption or the absence of a will. If the estate is being probated, transferring the title will require court papers signed by an executor or administrator, the title and a certified copy of the death certificate.

Small Estate Transfers

Each state sets a dollar amount under which an estate can avoid probate by filing a form to apply for a small estate exemption. The dollar amount applicable to a small estate exemption can vary widely between states, For example, an estate valued at less than $150,000 in California can be considered as a small estate while Ohio sets the upper value limit at $35,000 for an estate with no surviving spouse. Required documentation to transfer a vehicle title without probate varies between states, but usually includes the title, a certified copy of a death certificate, a copy of the will and state-specific forms certifying small estate status.

Transfers for Probated Estates

An estate that exceeds the maximum value for small state exemption will be subject to a full probate process. Probate processes are also state-specific, but usually include the appointment of an executor or court appointed administrator for the estate. Depending on the specifics of the estate, court papers will be drawn with instructions on the distribution of assets. Transferring vehicle ownership to an heir under these circumstances will normally require the executor or administrator to sign off on the title, which can be taken to a state DMV office with documentation including a certified death certificate and papers from the court.

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