**This article deals with North Carolina law. The laws and processes may be different in other states.
If you are married or in a long-term relationship, consider having all your vehicles titled as “joint with right of survivorship.” When one partner dies, the other partner will own 100% of the vehicle. The survivor can transfer the title the easiest way – by bringing the title and death certificate to the DMV office. No Clerk of Court or estate paperwork is necessary at all. This saves time, money, and trouble.
Titling a vehicle this way requires taking particular steps. The initials “JWROS,” which stand for “joint with right of survivorship” must appear after both owners’ names on the title. It looks like this: “John Smith and Mary Smith, JWROS.” Just having both names (like “John Smith and Mary Smith”) without the initials “JWROS” will not give you the benefit of survivorship. If it’s titled in both names without “JWROS,” half the value of the vehicle will be in the estate of either partner when he/she dies; it does not mean that the survivor will own 100% of the vehicle.
Because titling vehicles JWROS is not well known, many DMV title clerks and car dealers’ staff are not familiar with it, and don’t think it can be done. It can. NC law allows it. It helps to take this with you to the car dealer when you purchase your vehicle or when you visit DMV to get your new title. (The DMV Title Manual is a handy reference for a lot of things. It tells you how DMV handles many transactions, what paperwork you need, what fees are charged, etc. To find it, go to: https://connect.ncdot.gov/business/dmv/dmv%20documents/nc%20title%20manual.pdf
Some clients who aren’t married or with a long-term partner ask me if they should title a vehicle JWROS with their adult child to transfer title automatically after they pass. I usually discourage that, because it means giving a half interest in your car to your child. If you decide to sell your car, both your child and you would have to sign. Your child (as well as you) would have liability as an owner in the event of a wreck. If your child has unpaid creditors who get a judgment against him or her, the creditor could force the sale of your car.
Sometimes a person dies owning a vehicle, and that is the only asset in the estate. In that case, there is a shortcut so you do not have to probate the estate to free up that asset. You can take the death certificate, will, and car title to Clerk’s Estates Office. You’ll fill out DMV Form 317 Assignment of Title (get from DMV), which the Clerk will certify for a nominal fee; then, take it back to DMV to transfer the title. If there’s no will, or if the person getting the vehicle by agreement is someone other than whom the will says, all family members must sign the Form.
Finally, if a vehicle is titled in the name of a deceased spouse (or is jointly owned but without JWROS), a surviving spouse can list the vehicle on a Years’ Allowance form with the Clerk. Take this form and the title to DMV to transfer the title to the spouse. The Clerk’s fee is nominal. This option is only available to spouses.
These are some ways to make it easier, in North Carolina, to transfer a vehicle title after someone dies without probating a full estate. Which one works best for you depends on your circumstances.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.