Probate Shortcuts for Transferring Cars and Boats

Many states offer useful probate shortcuts when it comes to transferring vehicles to the people who inherit them.

Vehicles can be bothersome when they’re in an estate. They require regular maintenance, their value decreases steadily with age, and they must be stored and insured. All these factors argue for turning vehicles over to their new owners as soon as possible.

You may be able to take advantage of a probate shortcut in this process if the vehicle:

  • was jointly owned
  • is registered in transfer-on-death (TOD) form, or
  • qualifies for a special transfer procedure under state law.

Probably the best place to look for specific information about the options available in your state is on the website of the state’s motor vehicles department.

Jointly Owned Vehicles

If the vehicle was jointly owned, the surviving owner can easily transfer title into his or her name alone. The state motor vehicles department will have forms and instructions for the transfer. The surviving owner will also need a certified copy of the death certificate, the car title, and the registration certificate. The state may also require proof of insurance. There may be a small fee for the transfer.

Vehicles Registered in Transfer-on-Death Form

If the car was registered in one of the states listed below, check the title certificate to see whether it lists a TOD beneficiary. If it does, that beneficiary can take ownership of the car without probate proceedings.

TOD registration for cars is currently available in these states:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • Ohio
  • Vermont

Some of these states also allow TOD registration of small boats.

If the registration is in TOD form, the state DMV is the place to start. The TOD beneficiary will need to present a certified copy of the death certificate, the car title, and the registration. There will also be some simple paperwork to complete. There may be a small fee for the transfer, but in some states it’s free.

Affidavit Procedures for Transferring Vehicles

Some states have special procedures that allow you to transfer a vehicle to a new owner without probate.  Sometimes the shortcut is available only to the surviving spouse or only if the car’s value is less than a certain amount. In other states, any car can be transferred this way.

For example, in Hawaii, any motor vehicles registered to the deceased person can be transferred without probate proceedings. All the inheritor has to do is prepare an affidavit, or sworn statement, stating that he or she is entitled to inherit and that there aren’t going to be any probate proceedings. (Haw. Rev. Stat. section 560:3-1201) In Utah, up to four vehicles (motor vehicles, boats, trailers, or semitrailers) can be transferred with the same kind of affidavit. (Utah Code Ann. § 43-3-1201)

Special Transfer Shortcuts for Surviving Spouses

In some states, surviving spouses automatically inherit the deceased spouse’s vehicles, unless the will contains provisions to the contrary or a different person is registered as the transfer-on-death beneficiary.

For example, in Maine, the survivor automatically inherits any vehicles registered to the deceased spouse, unless the lienholder (car loan lender) refuses or the will says otherwise. The vehicle can be transferred without any fee or tax. (Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 29-A, § 663) In Ohio, the surviving spouse automatically gets up to two cars (as long as their value doesn’t exceed $40,000) without probate, unless the owner left them to someone else by will or TOD registration. (Ohio Rev. Code §2106.18)

Some other states have similar processes. For current rules and procedures, check with your state’s DMV.

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