If you live in one of the states that lets vehicle owners register cars and boats in "transfer-on-death" (TOD) form, you may be able to take ownership of a car you inherit simply and easily. If the original owner named you as the TOD beneficiary on the title or registration of the vehicle, taking ownership is straightforward. Because the state motor vehicles department knows you are legally entitled to inherit the car, it will transfer the vehicle to you with only a little paperwork after the original owner's death. No probate court proceeding is necessary for the transfer, making the process quick and inexpensive.
These states currently allow vehicles to be titled in TOD form:
If you're the TOD beneficiary, then at the death of the vehicle's owner (or of the last surviving owner, if the vehicle was jointly owned), you automatically become the new owner. This is true even if the deceased owner's will says something different.
You'll know whether or not a TOD beneficiary was named for a car or boat by looking at the vehicle's title and registration documents. Any TOD beneficiary should be clearly listed.
Because vehicles registered in TOD form don't pass under the terms of the deceased person's will, they aren't part of the deceased person's probate estate and aren't under the control of the executor. (The executor is the person named in the will to wrap up the affairs of the deceased person, and to handle the probate court proceeding if it's necessary.) That means it's not the executor's job to help transfer the vehicle to the TOD beneficiary, though an executor might end up helping with paperwork. In any event, the process should be pretty simple.
Every state's motor vehicles department has procedures for TOD beneficiaries to follow and forms to fill out. You should be able to find your state's rules on the website of the motor vehicles department in the state where the vehicle is registered. Some states offer all the forms and instructions you'll need online; in others, you'll need to call or visit the DMV.
You'll probably need to submit a few documents to the state DMV, including:
Sometimes, of course, title documents can't be found. If you don't have the certificate of title, you will likely need to submit a statement about the beneficiary designation. For example, in Nevada, if you can't produce the car title, you must write up and sign an affidavit (sworn statement) stating that you were named as the TOD beneficiary on the missing title.
You may need to pay a small fee to get a new car title issued. You will also need to re-register the car with the motor vehicles department in the state where you live. If there's a lien (legal claim) on the car, you inherit that, too. For example, if the deceased owner still owed money on a car loan, the debt comes with the car.
In most cases, it's easy to transfer title to a TOD vehicle after the owner dies. But if a divorce or multiple beneficiaries are involved, the situation can be slightly more complex.
If a vehicle owner named his or her spouse as a TOD beneficiary, and then the couple divorced, state law may automatically cancel the TOD designation. Not all states do this, however. If you're named as the TOD beneficiary of a vehicle owned by your former spouse, check state law to make sure the designation is still in effect. If it is revoked, the vehicle will pass under the terms of the deceased person's will. (For more about what happens to an estate plan at divorce, see "Revising Your Estate Plan After Divorce.")
If you aren't the only person named as a TOD beneficiary of a vehicle, you and the other beneficiaries will have to decide how you want to share ownership of the vehicle. For example, you could own it together, or sell it and split the proceeds. Or one beneficiary might buy out the other's share.