We divorced, planned to remarry then he died. What happens to this property?

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Q. I was married 27 years. We divorced, but I lived with him the last three years of his life and we had plans to remarry, but first, he died. My car title says “Jane Smith or John Smith” and our double-wide trailer says “John Smith or Jane Smith.” What are my rights in keeping these two properties out of probate court?
— What now?

A. Probate is relatively simple in New Jersey.

Still, we understand why you may want to avoid it.

Registration of a motor vehicle in the name of two individuals who are married vests the survivor with ownership, said Catherine Romania, an estate planning attorney with Witman Stadtmauer in Florham Park.

She said the survivor may obtain a new title and registration in his or her name by completing the Affidavit of Next of Kin, which can be found on the Motor Vehicle Commission’s website and bringing the Affidavit with the prior certificate of title, along with the deceased’s death certificate, to the Motor Vehicle Commission.

When the co-owner is the surviving spouse, it is not necessary to obtain letters testamentary or letters of administration issued by the surrogate, Romania said.

But if title was placed in the name of two individuals who were then married but who later divorced, the judgment of divorce ends the survivorship rights and the property would be deemed to be held as “tenants in common.”

In such a case, an executor or administrator would need to be appointed with letters testamentary or letters of administration issued by the surrogate, she said.

“The appointed executor or administrator would need to sign over the decedent’s interest in the vehicle to the new owner whether it is the joint tenant or, for example, someone else named in a will,’ Romania said. “The executed title along with the letters issued by the surrogate, the death certificate and such other documentation as may be requested to identify the new owner or owners, would need to be presented to the Motor Vehicle office in order to obtain a new certificate of title.”

Where the title is only in the name of the deceased and the vehicle is being transferred to a surviving spouse or domestic partner and the entire estate does not exceed $50,000, or there is no surviving spouse or domestic partner but there are heirs and the estate does not exceed $20,000, limited letters of administration may be obtained from the surrogate to enable the transfer, she said.

In May of this year, Governor Murphy signed a bill into law authorizing the transfer on death of title to a motor vehicle.

“It requires the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission to adopt forms to allow an owner to designate co-owners or beneficiaries, including a trust, to whom the motor vehicle shall be transferred on the death of the owner subject to the rights of lien holders,” Romania said. “This beneficiary may be changed by the owner at any time without the consent of the beneficiary.”

Romania said presumably, when effective next May, it will simplify the process to transfer vehicles to the co-owners and beneficiaries listed regardless of their relationship to the decedent.

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This story was originally published on Sept. 15, 2022.

NJMoneyHelp.com 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.