There’s a lot to process when a family member dies. Coping with your loss may be made harder if you have to handle the material items the deceased left behind, like a car. This guide can help you through the process of selling that car and relieve some of the stress that accompanies the death of a loved one.
Locate the Will
If the deceased left a last will and testament, having that will make the process relatively straightforward. If the will names you as the executor of the estate, you can legally sell the car. The probate court (the state-run agency that handles inheritance) will issue what is known as “letters testamentary,” which give the recipient the authority to act on behalf of the estate, meaning they can sell the vehicle, among other items left behind. Make copies of these letters and the death certificate for your records and to share if someone questions your authority over the vehicle.
You’ll need to acquire the title to sell the car, too. Your state’s DMV website will provide details on how to acquire the title. If you don’t have experience selling a car yourself, CarGurus has articles that can help with things like selling your car online, making the most money you can out of the sale, how to pick the right price, and more bits of car-selling advice. Feel free to consult our articles on Selling Your Car.
Make Sure the Car Doesn’t Have Unpaid Loans
If the car has a lien, you’ll need to pay off the balance before taking any of the steps listed above to sell the car. Once you pay off the car’s loan, the financial institution that issued that loan will provide you with a clear title. If there is no lien, you still need the title, but it doesn’t need to be in your name. Instead, after you have made the sale, just sign the back of the title as if you own the vehicle and next to your name write “executor for the estate of [deceased family member’s name].” The buyer will then take the title to register the car at their local DMV office, and the state will issue a new title in their name. Before selling, you will also need to cancel any insurance on the car. The insurance company may ask for a copy of the death certificate and the letter of testamentary.
Understand Survivorship Rights
Even if your loved one didn’t leave a will, there are some documents that can keep dealing with their car a fairly simple process. If the vehicle was jointly titled to your loved one’s spouse, then the surviving spouse needs only a copy of the death certificate and a valid ID to prove ownership—and, thus, the right to sell the car. The vehicle may have also been jointly titled with “rights of survivorship,” which means when one of the co-owners dies, the other becomes the vehicle’s sole owner, and thus has the right to sell it with the death certificate and an ID as proof of ownership.
A joint title is often designated with the initials “JWROS” (joint with right of survivorship) appearing after the names on the title: “John Doe and Jane Doe, JWROS.” For more information on your state’s joint titling laws, consult your state’s Department of Transportation website.
The title may include a “Transfer on Death” or “TOD” addendum naming you as the owner upon the death of the previous owner. If this is this case—and the state decides the estate does not need to be probated—you will need a copy of the death certificate and a letter from the court stating that the deceased died “intestate” (without a will) and that there is either no estate or that the estate does not need to be probated in order for you to sell the vehicle (in most states).
As you’ve probably figured out by now, these laws vary by state. Research the laws in your state on the DMV and Department of Transportation websites to understand what kind of documents you will need to sell your deceased family member’s car. Consulting with an attorney, if possible, is a good way to make sure you are following proper procedures.
Go to Probate
If there is no will, TOD addendum, or a JWROS designation, you will have to go through probate court to attain the authority to sell the vehicle. If there is a general consensus among the living heirs of the deceased that you should take ownership of the car, you can list it for sale immediately after acquiring the appropriate documentation for your state—most likely a death certificate and a letter from the probate judge.
An attorney acting as the executor of the estate may also want to intercede on your behalf and help you with the sale of the car in order to settle any outstanding debt. However, if the person died without a will and left a large estate—or if there are disagreements among the heirs—the process of probating an estate could take years. Unfortunately, if this is the case, selling the car will also take that long.
The Bottom Line
Being thorough and organized is key to selling a deceased family member’s car. If there is a will, a Transfer on Death addendum on the title, or a joint title for the car, selling a loved one’s car can be simple and straightforward. Research the laws in your state and make copies of all legal documents. Taking care of these details will help you navigate the legal process, ease your stress, and sell the vehicle.