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

By T.C. Edere

A vehicle not included in a will or trust instrument is passed down according to a state's rules of intestacy or as a non-probate asset. "Intestacy" means the owner died without spelling out in writing, typically through a will, who gets the vehicle, so a court must decide the question of inheritance. A non-probate asset passes to a new owner by action of law, outside the workings of the probate court overseeing the estate. Either way, the new owner must register the vehicle's title.


An estate is all the property, including vehicles, someone owned at the time he passed away. Some people don’t leave behind a will or trust agreement, or they fail to spell out how each item of property is to be distributed. It’s also possible that a will may be found legally defective and won’t be recognized by the court. When this happens, the property left in limbo is said to pass by intestacy. The values of the vehicle and all other intestate assets are totaled up and estate's bills and taxes paid. Afterward, the probate court disburses what’s left to the next of kin. Surviving spouses and children are usually first in line. Intestacy rules are spelled out in the estate laws of each state.


With the wide range of estate planning tools available these days, much, if not most, of a decedent’s property passes to beneficiaries outside the jurisdiction of the probate court. Life insurance proceeds and pension money, for instance, go directly to the named beneficiary. Property jointly held goes automatically to the surviving spouse, including motor vehicles held in the names of both husband and wife. However, if the vehicle title was held solely in the decedent’s name, the probate court must apply the rules of intestacy.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan

The Next Step

Once ownership of the vehicle is determined, the new owner must go to the state motor vehicle department. If the new owner is the surviving joint co-owner, he fills out a transfer form and presents the old title with a copy of the death certificate and proof of his own identity. The state then issues a new title. If the transfer isn't automatic, as in intestacy, the new owner registers the title by furnishing additional documents. These can include letters of administration showing who is handling the estate. The new owner may also be required to submit a hold-harmless agreement, making the new owner and not the state responsible if another claimant subsequently challenges ownership. The new owner pays all registration fees and transfer taxes.


Motor vehicle laws – and probate laws – vary from one state to another. A beneficiary with questions about his rights to a decedent’s motor vehicle should consult an attorney. One common headache is when a lien on the old title exists. This means a bank or a leasing company has a claim on the car. That lien must be satisfied before ownership can transfer.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
How to Sell a Vehicle in Michigan When Owner Dies Without a Will



Related articles

How to Title an Inherited Vehicle in Texas

A Texas resident may inherit a vehicle in a variety of ways following the death of a friend or family member. Whether a vehicle is inherited by a will, through intestacy, or by joint title, the inheritor is responsible for transferring the vehicle’s title to his own name. The heir to the vehicle must file specific documents according to state guidelines to properly transfer the vehicle’s title before beginning to use the vehicle as his own.

Can a Trustee Sign the Title of a Car Over Upon the Death of the Owner?

Many people establish trusts to avoid probate proceedings for their heirs. Revocable trusts are the most popular choice for estate planning. This is because the trust maker retains full rights to change asset distributions, beneficiaries and trustees. A trustee manages and controls trust assets for the benefit of the trust's named beneficiaries and may transfer title to real and personal trust property according to the trust's terms.

When Don't You Need to Probate a Will?

When an individual dies and leaves a will detailing how his property should be distributed, the will must usually go through a probate process. However, the existence of a will does not mean that probate is always necessary. An individual can plan his estate so all of his assets pass outside of a will, making probate unnecessary. Many states also have laws that allow estates of a certain size to avoid the probate process.

LegalZoom. Legal help is here. Start Here. Wills. Trusts. Attorney help.

Related articles

Probate Court for Heirs in Mineral Rights

Mineral rights are property rights to underground substances such as oil, natural gas and precious metals. While in ...

How to Title a Vehicle in Special Needs Trust

If you have a child or relative with disabilities, you can set up a special needs trust that will provide for her ...

How to Dissolve a Sole Proprietorship After the Owner's Death

If the owner of a sole proprietorship dies, then the business also ceases to operate, because state laws and IRS rules ...

How to Use an LLC for Vehicle Ownership

A limited liability company, or an LLC, is a business structure that protects the owners, or members, from liability ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED