How a vehicle is transferred upon death

When an individual dies, how that person had his or her vehicles titled will affect how difficult it is to transfer title of such vehicles.  Below are several ways to title a vehicle and a summary of the steps necessary to transfer title upon death.

Oftentimes, a person will hold title to a vehicle individually.  In such cases, an estate will likely have to be opened to determine how the vehicle is to be distributed.  If you’ve ever had to administer a loved one’s estate, you know that an estate can be a headache.  During the estate administration process, various procedures will have to occur including waiting for creditor claims until the vehicle can be distributed.  In some cases, upon proper application it may be possible to assign the vehicle to a surviving spouse as a Year’s Allowance (a surviving spouse is typically entitled to up to $30,000 in personal property from the deceased’s estate).  When a Year’s Allowance is not possible, the vehicle will ultimately be distributed to the beneficiary(ies) provided in the decedent’s will or to the decedent’s heirs at law.  Occasionally, a vehicle may have to be sold to generate money to pay creditors and estate expenses.

Another fairly common way to title vehicles is through joint titles.  There are two ways a vehicle can be titled: with our without a right of survivorship.  A jointly titled vehicle without a right of survivorship means that the deceased person’s estate still retains a one-half interest in the value of that automobile.  As a result, to transfer title to these types of jointly titled vehicles, an estate administration may still be necessary.  Again, an assignment to a surviving spouse of the decedent’s one-half interest in the vehicle as a portion of the Year’s Allowance may be appropriate.  To complete the title transfer, a court-approved Final Account from the estate showing distribution to the beneficiary or an Order assigning the vehicle as a portion of a spouse’s Year’s Allowance will be required to be produced to the DMV/tag office.

One clever way to hold title, especially between spouses, is as joint tenants with right of survivorship.  This requires the specific initials “JWROS” on the title following the individuals’ names, such as “John Doe and Jane Doe, JWROS.”  This specific JWROS designation is required however, and without such designation half the value of the vehicle will remain an asset of the estate.  With a JWROS designation the survivor will be entitled to sole title and ownership of the vehicle without the need for the vehicle to be a part of an estate; all that is required in such cases is production of the current title and the deceased’s death certification to the DMV/tag office.

To learn more about the North Carolina DMV and the procedures surrounding titles, go to the following link for the Vehicle Registration Section Title Manual.

If you have questions about how to deal with vehicles and titles as part of your estate planning or in connection with the administration of a loved one’s estate, please call King Law for a free consultation.