Almost every estate has an estate car. Even in the simplest of cases, where the estate car is paid off and the will names a beneficiary of the vehicle,further documentation is needed to claim this valuable asset. Before you get down to the nitty gritty of deciding whether to keep, sell, or even donate an estate car, the first thing you’ll need to do is secure the ability to legally assume ownership. To do that, you need a title.

What’s in a title?

Without a valid car title you’re stalled out once an owner is deceased. Without a title a vehicle can not be registered and driving a deceased person’s vehicle without first registering it is illegal. . Furthermore, you can’t transfer ownership of a car without the title. You can’t sell it. You can’t insure it. Notable charities like Kars4Kids.org won’t accept it. And aside from a few states, most U.S. junkyards can’t even legally buy it for the scrap metal value.

Regardless of what you want to do with the car, you need to acquire a valid car title once the owner is deceased. No worries though, in this article we’ll guide you through the steps to find the car title, process it, and what you should do if you come up empty handed.

Locating the title

If it’s not in the glove compartment, locating the car title when an owner is deceased starts with a search through the property. Below are some tips that we’ve found helpful in these situations.

  • Check the obvious places first. Well-organized people tend to store titles in folders, envelopes, or boxes that house other important documents. Such caches are typically found in a filing cabinet, desk, firebox, safe, storage closet, bedroom dresser, or other drawers used for storage.
  • Expand the search. Garages, basements, and workshops sometimes serve as unexpected homes for titles and other important papers. Begin by checking drawers, old dressers, and other storage furnishings for folders, envelopes, loose documents, and the like. Then look and sift through boxes and/or storage containers. Tip: Keep an eye out for labels scribbled across containers or tucked into envelopes.

  • Exhaust every nook and cranny. When all else fails, search everything. We’ve found titles tucked away in stacks of old newspapers and books, folded into jacket pockets, and even taped under the front seat of a truck.

Was the title processed? 

Transferring a car title when an owner is deceased is a relatively easy process that can be complicated if the title itself was not processed. . Shaped by memories of the Great Depression and World War II, greatest generationers frequently purchased cars with cash and, whether it was to avoid paying taxes or because of a distrust of institutions, didn’t bother to have the titles processed.

We see this most often with collector cars. In fact, in one extreme instance, a client came to us with acres full of antique vehicles. Fortunately, he had all 800 titles in a box. But upon closer inspection, we discovered not one of them had been processed. From a registration perspective, this meant the estate cars had more than 700 different owners!

Don’t worry, checking to make sure your title was processed is easy. In most state you can check your title status using the local vehicle registration online service by using your VIN number. The VIN number is usually found on an inspection sticker or tag located near the hinge of the driver’s side door. Otherwise, opt for a CARFAX report. Both methods will quickly let you know the last registered owner of the vehicle.

If the title wasn’t processed

Transferring the car title after a death becomes a little more time consuming if the deceased isn’t listed as the car’s prior owner. In this case, you’ll need to bring the current title to your local DMV and apply for a substitute. While specifics vary by state and location, the process for making a change to the title is relatively straightforward.

  • Once you file the proper paperwork, the organization sends a formal letter of inquiry to the last known address of the vehicle’s listed owner asking if the car was indeed sold.

  • After a designated number of weeks, if the letter goes unanswered, or is answered in the affirmative, a replacement title is issued in the name of the deceased.

Typically, we find that the former owner has passed away or long-since moved, so these inquiries usually go unanswered.

What to do when there is no title

If you’ve searched high and low with no luck, you’ll need to petition the vehicle registration office for a duplicate title. Here’s what to bring when you are trying to transfer ownership of a car without the title.

  • The vehicle’s registration card. If you don’t have that, write down the VIN number and bring it along.
  • A notarized copy of the will, or a court-issued document proving you are the legal heir.
  • Death certificate or death verification document.
  • Photo ID.
  • Cash or credit card for payment of fees.

 

Transferring the car title after death

With a valid title and the proper items in hand, the transfer of vehicle ownership after death is a cinch. Here’s what you’ll need.

  • Death certificate or death verification document.
  • Title.
  • Notarized copy of the will, or a court-issued document proving you are the legal heir.
  • Photo ID.
  • Cash or credit card for payment of fees.

When dealing with an estate car, spare yourself time and frustration by making sure you have a valid title. Once the car's title is in hand, then you can decide whether you should keep, donate, or sell the car.

Need Help with an Estate Sale?

At Legacy Navigator, we work with families in transition. We’ll help you sort your property, find important documents, and decide where items go - keep, sell, donate or trash. We’ll clean your house and stage it for sale. Our probate expert will help you understand and file any estate documents. On top of that we can finance our services so that we don't get paid until the house sells. If you are in need of estate sales help contact us for a free consultation.

Find a Probate Attorney

WayForth is a downsizing, senior move management, and estate clean-out company. We offer our probate resources as support for families settling an estate, but we do not offer legal services.


At Wayforth we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.