Who Is Entitled to a Vehicle After a Person Dies If It Is Not Included in a Will or Trust?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

Who Is Entitled to a Vehicle After a Person Dies If It Is Not Included in a Will or Trust?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

When someone dies without a will or trust, state-specific intestacy statutes provide a road map for distributing the property passing through the estate. If a vehicle is part of a probate proceeding, the court-appointed personal representative, executor, or estate administrator distributes vehicles and other tangible personal property after paying estate administration expenses. When no probate is necessary, certain family members might be able to take title to vehicles by submitting affidavits or other sworn statements and proof of death to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

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State Intestacy Statutes

If you die without a will or trust, you die intestate. State laws determine who inherits estate assets in intestate estates. Not all assets pass through the estate, however, even if you die intestate. For example, if you own a vehicle with another person as joint tenants, the other joint owner becomes the sole owner of the vehicle when you die. Similarly, any asset with one or more named beneficiaries passes outside your estate to the named beneficiaries.

State intestacy laws differ when it comes to determining how vehicles and other estate assets transfer. In general, if you have a spouse but do not have children, your spouse is entitled to your vehicle and any other estate property when you die. If you are not married but have children, your children inherit your assets. If you don't have a spouse or descendants who survive you, your estate might pass to your parents, your siblings, or other relatives. In some states, if you have a spouse and have children with your spouse, or if you have a spouse and also have children from a previous relationship, the law may divide your estate between your spouse and children.

Your state's laws might be entirely different. When in doubt, consult an estate-planning or probate attorney for help identifying intestate heirs.

Transferring Title

When you can identify the rightful heir of a vehicle, the next step is transferring title so state records reflect the correct owner.

If the estate goes through a probate proceeding, you must wait until the court has appointed a personal representative, executor, or administrator for the estate. Once appointed, that person has authority to transfer title for the deceased person's property, including vehicles.

Rules about when estates are subject to probate court also vary. In some states, certain small estates are exempt from probate. For example, estates without real estate holdings and with no more than a certain number of estate assets can sometimes use simplified probate processes or avoid probate entirely because of their size. When a small estate that is exempt from probate includes a vehicle, a spouse or other family member might be able to transfer title by providing documentation to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

If you determine that probate court is not required, check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles to determine the process and to learn about required forms, documentation, fees, and taxes for transferring the vehicle's title to the new owner. You might need to sign an affidavit and provide a certified copy of the deceased person's death certificate.

If there is an outstanding loan balance or lien on the vehicle, you must satisfy it before transferring title. Working with a qualified attorney in your state can help ensure you transfer title correctly and remove any existing security interests, avoiding potential frustration later.

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