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How to Sell the Car of a Deceased Person


If you’re wondering how to sell the car of a deceased person it starts with proving they’re dead. You must first obtain a death certificate, and possibly a court order, to verify your legal authority to sell the vehicle. Preparing the car for sale involves ensuring it is clean, in good working order, and ready for potential buyers to inspect. Listing the car for sale and negotiating with buyers are the final steps in this process. Again, it’s important to handle each step carefully to comply with legal requirements, especially as the deceased’s estate goes through probate.

If you need help managing your estate, a financial advisor can guide you in creating a plan.

Legal Requirements and Steps to Sell a Deceased Person’s Car

If you’re managing the estate of a decedent, there are many factors to account for, specifically with items that hold larger valuations like real estate, bank accounts and cars. The high-level steps in this process generally include finding the decedent’s will, checking for unpaid loans on the car, canceling any insurances, understanding survivorship rights and how they might apply and more. Let’s take a closer look at each one:

Locating the Will

The first step in selling a car of a deceased person is to locate their will. The will typically outlines the deceased person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets, including vehicles. If you are the executor of the estate, you have the authority to manage and distribute the assets according to the will. If there is no will, the estate will be handled according to state laws, and a court-appointed administrator will make those decisions.

Obtaining a Death Certificate

After you’ve located the will, the next step in selling the car of a deceased person is getting a copy of their death certificate. This document is essential for most administrative tasks, including transferring the car title and notifying the insurance company. To get one, check your state’s vital records department website. Most states have an online request form you can use, but may charge a small processing fee. If your decedent made arrangements with a funeral home, they may also be able to provide a copy.   

Understanding Survivorship Rights

Survivorship rights play a significant role in determining how you can sell the car of a deceased person. If the car was jointly owned, the surviving owner typically keeps the vehicle because their survivorship rights override the will. The surviving owner can sell the car without going through probate. However, if the car was solely owned by the deceased, the vehicle must go through probate to transfer ownership.

Checking for Unpaid Loans

Once you’ve established ownership, it’s crucial to check for outstanding loans on the vehicle. Look for the most recent monthly statement from a lender, or contact them directly to verify the status of any loans and get the payoff amount required to clear the title. If the deceased person had an auto loan, the loan must be paid off before the vehicle can be sold. This might involve using funds from the estate or proceeds from the sale of the car.

Canceling Insurance

Canceling the deceased’s car insurance is another important step. It will prevent further premium charges and ensure that the estate is not held responsible for unnecessary expenses. To cancel, you need to contact the insurance company to inform them of the policyholder’s death, and typically must provide a copy of the death certificate and any other required documents.

Finding a Buyer and Preparing for a Sale

A mother and son selling the car of a deceased relative.

Once the legalities are handled, prepare the car for sale. Ensure that the vehicle is clean, in good working condition and has all necessary maintenance records.

Only after all of the above can you really start advertising the car to find a buyer. Use online marketplaces, local classifieds and social media to reach a wide audience. Be transparent about the car’s history and ownership, especially if there have been any issues with it following the decedent’s passing. Once you have found a buyer, complete the sale by signing the necessary paperwork and handing over the keys.

How to Transfer a Car Title After Death

If the deceased had a will or trust, the process of transferring the car title is generally straightforward. The executor of the will or the trustee named in the trust is responsible for handling the deceased’s assets, including the car. The executor will need to gather essential documents, such as the death certificate, the will, and the car’s title. They must then visit the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or equivalent office, submit these documents and complete the required forms to transfer the title to the new owner. If the car is bequeathed to a beneficiary, it may be considered a gift, depending on the terms of the will.

If the deceased did not have a will or trust, the process becomes more complicated. In such cases, the car is part of the estate and will go through probate, a legal process for settling the estate. The court will appoint an administrator to manage the deceased’s assets. In addition to the standard title transfer paperwork, the administrator also needs to provide proof of their legal authority to transfer the title, typically through a court order. The DMV will then transfer the title to the person legally entitled to inherit the car, as determined by state law.

A car can be considered a gift when it is passed directly to a primary or secondary beneficiary named in a will or trust. This is often the case when the deceased has specifically designated a person to receive the car. For the beneficiary to claim the car, they will need to present the necessary documents, including the death certificate and proof of their status as the beneficiary, to the DMV. The DMV will then update the car’s title to reflect the new owner.

Who Transfers the Title for a Deceased Person’s Car?

The first step in transferring the title of a deceased person’s car is identifying who is legally responsible. Typically, this falls to the executor of the estate or a court-appointed  administrator, usually a close family member. After settling any debts and completing the necessary forms, the executor or administrator can submit the paperwork to the DMV. The DMV will then issue a new title in the name of the estate or the new owner if the car is being sold. It’s essential to keep a copy of all documents submitted for future reference.

If the decision is to sell the car, the process involves additional steps. The executor must first ensure the car’s title is transferred to the estate’s name. Once this is complete, the car can be sold following the standard procedure of providing the buyer with the signed title, bill of sale, and any other required documents.

How Long Can Probate Take?

Generally, probate can take between six months to a year to complete, but this timeline can extend based on  the complexity of the estate, the efficiency of the executor, and the backlog in the court system. Larger estates with multiple assets and numerous beneficiaries typically require more time to settle, while simpler estates can be processed more swiftly.

Probate also moves much faster if the deceased left a will. A clear and uncontested will prevent disputes among heirs that can cause significant delays. Additionally, the state of residence can impact the timeline due to different probate laws and court procedures. Some states have streamlined processes for small estates that can reduce the duration considerably. Executors should familiarize themselves with the specific probate laws in their state to understand potential delays.

State laws can significantly impact how to sell a car of a deceased person. Each state has its own set of probate regulations, which can affect both the duration and the steps involved in the process. For example, some states require the car’s title to be transferred to the estate’s name before it can be sold, while others might allow a direct transfer to the buyer. Executors should check with their state’s DMV or a legal professional to ensure compliance with local laws.

Bottom Line

A woman inspecting a car before selling it.

Selling a car of a deceased person involves several steps to ensure the process is legal and smooth. To sell the car of a deceased person you will need to locate the will, obtain the death certificate, review survivorship rights, check for unpaid loans, cancel insurance and then find a buyer. When you finally transfer the title, make sure that all paperwork complies with your state’s regulations to avoid legal complications.

Tips on Estate Planning

  • Probate can hold up the distribution of your assets for as long as a year. But an estate plan can help your heirs avoid this delay. A financial advisor can guide you in planning your estate, and managing your wealth. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • A revocable living trust can help secure your property from probate, but it’s not the only kind of trust around. Look into how different trusts work to see which kind is right for you.

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