How to Transfer Property Title When Death Occurs

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

How to Transfer Property Title When Death Occurs

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

After a loved one dies, their property needs to be transferred or retitled. The process of doing so is regulated by state law and depends on the type of asset and how it was owned at the time of death.

Person going through document

Types of Ownership

Different forms of property ownership are handled in different ways when an owner dies.

1. Assets owned in joint tenancy.

Property or financial assets owned as "joint tenants with rights of survivorship," sometimes also simply "joint tenants," passes to the other named joint owner(s) without a need for a probate court proceeding. The specific procedures for retitling these assets depends on your state's requirements or on the specific financial institution's requirements.

For example, in order to retitle real property (real estate) owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, you need to follow your state's procedural requirements. These requirements may involve filing an Affidavit of Survivorship and a certified copy of the deceased owner's death certificate with the county recorder's office or registrar of titles.

To transfer titles for bank accounts and investments held in joint tenancy, you need to follow the financial institution's instructions. For vehicles owned jointly, contact your local department of motor vehicles office to determine what documents and fees are required.

2. Assets with beneficiary designations or those held in a trust.

Similarly, property owned by the decedent for which one or more people were named as beneficiaries can be retitled by following the steps and procedures of the institution holding the account or asset. This usually involves filling out "death claim" paperwork and providing a certified copy of your loved one's death certificate. This may include assets like life insurance and retirement accounts, as well as bank accounts with a pay on death (POD) designation or investments with a transfer on death (TOD) designation.

If the deceased person held assets inside a trust at the time of death, the trust agreement determines to whom and under what circumstances those assets can be distributed. The trustee named in the agreement has the authority to retitle assets by making distributions out of the trust.

3. Assets owned in the decedent's name alone.

For assets owned in your deceased loved one's name alone, without joint owners, beneficiaries, or trust ownership, you need to determine your state's requirements for retitling assets. This includes assets owned as "tenants in common."

A probate court proceeding may be required, depending on the size of the estate and the types of assets involved. Your state may offer a small estate alternative to probate, if the combined value of all of the assets in the decedent's name alone is under a certain threshold. If this is the case, you may be able to obtain title by providing the account holder a signed and notarized affidavit along with proof of your loved one's death.

If assets need to be probated, the court will appoint someone as the personal representative or executor for your loved one's estate. The personal representative has legal authority to distribute and retitle assets according to your loved one's will and according to state law.

You may find it helpful to consult with a licensed estate planning and probate attorney in your state who can advise and assist you with retitling your deceased loved one's property.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.