Is it necessary to legally transfer ownership of a car after the owner dies?

12 answers | Last updated: Jan 18, 2017
Kevinl asked...

My mother-in-law passed away. Her grandaughter borrowed the the car and is still driving it. The car is registered and insured in my mother-in-law's name. Is this a liability issue?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

There could indeed be a messy liability issue if the car is involved in an accident or other mishap.

Unless your mother-in-law directed that the car pass immediately to a new owner through a transfer-on-death arrangement, it now legally belongs to her estate.

Until the ownership issue is settled"”there is also a chance that she named a new owner for the car in a will or trust"”it is safer for the car to be left parked. The new owner will then have to transfer title and attend to registering and insuring the vehicle.

Community Answers

Granny2grandsons answered...

Barbara's answer to your question is very helpful. There was probably nothing done regarding the car prior to your Mother-in-Law's passing. Thus, it remains part of the estate. If she had a spouse, the spouse is the legal owner if named on the car title. If no spouse, all the children share in the "ownership".

It WILL get messy if one of the children doesn't like the idea of this Granddaughter just taking "possession" of an Estate asset. The Executor of her Will should sign the title over OR there should be a value put to the vehicle and split among the heirs.

The insurance on the car should immediately be changed as well. There is no insurance on the vehicle if the car is titled only by your Mother-in-Law. Get this matter taken care of immediately before something happens or the "injured party" could/would go after the Estate!

Hope it helps. Sending hugs!!!!!

Dianat answered...

My mother-in-law does not have a will and my husband is her only child. She does not think she needs a will. She lives in Oregon. We live in Alabama. We were planning to drive her car from Oregon to Alabama when she passes. Can we get insurance immediately or will this cause problems for us?

A fellow caregiver answered...

Dear DianaT

Speaking from experience with AL Courts - if your Mother-in-Law does not have a Will - if she is unwilling to get one, have her at least sign the title of the car over to her son! Or have it jointly held. I don't know about Oregon laws - if they are like AL - without a Will, it will have to go to Probate which can take months (up to years) to settle. Even if he is an only child - they will make sure all debts of the deceased are zero before releasing anything. A Cousin can "pop up" and say, "MIL said I could have car". People can turn into creatures and cause all kinds of chaos!

You won't be able to insure a car without it being in your possession. Just mentioning "death in family" raises "red flags". Everyone will wait for Probate Court to settle. If you have been with your insurance company for a long time - they might be willing to help you out.

Hopefully, your MIL will just sign the title over and that will solve everything!!!

Sending Hugs & Prayers Staying anonymously BECAUSE of AL COURTS - STILL THERE FROM DEATH IN 2005!!!!!

Dianat answered...

Mother in law is concerned that if she puts her son on the title he would be liable if she gets in an accident. She does have him as co-owner of her condo in Oregon so I think that is ok. He is not on her bank account at present. She is still driving, but at 86 and with only one good eye, we are encouraging her to stop driving. We are hoping she will reconsider a will, but if he is co-owner of her car, condo, and bank account is a will still necessary? (We have been with our car insurance for a very long time...thanks for the advice.)

A fellow caregiver answered...


Your MIL would not cause your son any problem having him on the title of the car. She has her own car insurance that would take care of any accident. Hopefully, her son is a beneficiary on her bank accounts - without that, it would go to probate. He doesn't necessarily be a joint holder (meaning he could have access to it at any time) but as a beneficiary, the bank would give it to him once he produces a death certificate (original).

If he is co-owner or beneficiary on all cars, condo's, bank accounts, and personal belongings (which are probably included in condo)- then I see no reason for a Will. Just make sure all of her possessions, real and personal property is either co-owned or listing her son as beneficiary!

You could also talk with an attorney for information. What part of AL do you live in? I could give you references for Birmingham and Montgomery. Better yet, you could go to the AL Bar Association website for a list of attorney's that deal with estates. Then check those attorneys you chose with any bar complaints filed on that website.

Hope that helps!

Dianat answered...

We live north of Birmingham in Decatur. I actually work at an Area Agency on Aging. We have a lawyer on staff one day a week. I appreciate your advice very much.

A fellow caregiver answered...


How glad to hear that you have a lawyer available once a week. Just ask the lawyer "could you please answer a few questions for me"? With the lawyer "on staff" - I bet there is no hesitation in giving you a "little advice".

DianaT - you have just been handed your "Angel of Help", rather you realize it or not! Sometimes it helps to talk things out so that the "light bulb" goes on!!

I wish you well while you take care of the matters at hand. Good luck and God Bless You!

Sending lots of hugs - you did it yourself!!

Dianat answered...

Thanks so much for your helpful answers. MIL is a love and so dear to us. She just lost her spouse of 37 years and we are assisting her to get her last wishes in order even though she is in pretty good health. I will talk to the lawyer the next time he is in for his advise as well. I am checking into Veterans benefits for her too. (She served in WWII.) Take care. Hugs to you too.

A fellow caregiver answered...


Wonderful!! Sounds like you have a good head on your shoulders! If your MIL was in the service - I believe they have them make out a Will if they have to go overseas! You can check that out with the Judge Advocate office at the base!

Sounds like your MIL is worth helping out with everything you are doing - you are very luck and so is she!! I'm sorry to hear she just lost her spouse of 37 years. It appears she knows now is the time to set things up before she passes!

Take care - you are doing GREAT!!!

Sending lots of hugs & prayers!!!!!

Seafoam answered...

Not sure about the other but for bank accounts the easiest way (unless you are named on the account) is to have your loved one change the account to be a "POD" or "TOD" account (payable or transfer on death) account with your name. They still have full control of the money while alive and you don't have access. When they pass away all you need to do is walk in with a death certificate and the account is yours. This is just one way, might not be the best way in particular if the person becomes disabled which can result in extreem hardship for those that care and are responsible to the person legally or just morally. Let me emphasize, even harder with greedy, needy siblings who feel they are owed while they do nothing to help you which seems to be a common theme these days.

A fellow caregiver answered...

My X Wife passed away and has a car loan in her name only that our son and her were making payment on. The car was to go to him but she had no will or trust. Her husband agrees and wants my son to have it and I have been making payments. What needs to happen to clear this up ?