How can you get a deceased person’s car in your name?


Q. My neighbor’s husband recently passed away, owing a balance on his car note. His wife is now paying off the balance of the car. When she finishes, do they mail her ownership papers, title and letter saying she paid off the lien? Or can she just go motor vehicles and transfer the title to her name?
— Trying to help

A. We’re sorry to hear of your neighbor’s loss.

There are a few different ways this can play out.

“Payment of an auto loan for a car that is not titled in your name does not automatically vest ownership rights in the person making the payments,” said Gerard Papetti, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant with U.S. Financial Services in Fairfield.

How the title to the car will be changed depends on if your deceased neighbor had a will, he said.

If there was a will, it should indicate how tangible personal property, which includes automobiles, is to be distributed, Papetti said.

“In most marital situations, tangible personal property passes to the surviving spouse, however the will may also provide for specific bequests that would control to whom the item would pass,” he said. “If the wife is to receive all tangible personal property, then she has the legal right to retitle the car in her name.”

The personal representative or executor will have the authority to act on behalf of the husband’s estate and help retitle the car, he said.

If your neighbor did not have a will, then the assets he owns, including the car, will pass by state law.

“Under the State of New Jersey laws of intestacy, how the probate estate is distributed depends on if the decedent was married, had children, surviving parents as well as the total value of the probate estate,” he said. “Note that if your deceased neighbor did not have children or surviving parents, the wife inherits all of the probate estate which would include the car.”

Only assets that need to be probated are subject to the laws of intestacy, Papetti said. Assets that do not need to go through probate include those titled as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, assets owned by a living trust and assets that pass by beneficiary designation such as life insurance, retirement plans, IRAs and accounts titled “payable on death.”

This all means your neighbor’s wife needs to determine if her husband had a valid will and if so, that dictates who gets the car. The executor will be able to work with the Motor Vehicle Commission to change the title.

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This story was originally published on March 5, 2021. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.