Vehicles: A Quick Guide After the Death of a Loved One
Most people die owning a vehicle, but fewer individuals know what to do with the car once a loved one passes. This guide reviews the basics. It explains the procedures under Iowa law, but those from other states may learn from the general concepts.
The first step after the death of a vehicle owner is to locate the car, all of the keys to the car, the certificate of title, the registration card[i], and the insurance card.[ii] The certificate of title should tell you how the decedent owned the car.[iii] If you cannot find the certificate of title or the registration card,[iv] you must apply at the DMV for a re-issued document.[v]
Title and Registration Concerns
If the decedent’s name (not a trust) is on the title paperwork, then the license plates must be removed and sent to the county treasurer as soon as possible.[vi] Under Iowa law, no one can drive the vehicle until the vehicle is properly registered.[vii] There can be criminal law consequences to not following this law.[viii]
To have proper registration, the decedent’s name needs to be removed from the title.[ix] To do this, the proper person should sign the back of the title in a specific way, detailed below.[x] Then the original title needs to be given to a county treasurer, who will then re-register and re-title the vehicle.[xi]
The usual fees associated with a transfer of title and registration will be due, unless the new owner is the decedent’s spouse.[xii] A credit can be obtained for the unused portion of the decedent’s registration period.[xiii] The sections below discuss what paperwork is necessary under Iowa law to properly remove the decedent from the title paperwork.
If there are two names on the title, pay close attention to which conjunction combines the names. If the names are connected by an “or” then the living owner is now the full owner and can sign the title to themselves.[xiv] Remember, you should remove the decedent’s name from the title within the first year or complications will arise when it comes time to renew the registration.[xv]
However, if the names are connected by an “and” then the procedures outlined below under individually owned must be used to remove the decedent’s name from the title and re-title the vehicle in the name of the remaining owner(s).[xvi]
For example, the Certificate of Title shows the owners as “George Jefferson and Louise Jefferson.” George passes away, without a will. Additionally, there was no probate administration. Louise will need to sign the back of the Certificate as herself and as the person entitled to possession. She will need to bring the Certificate, Form 411088 (filled out and notarized), and an Application For Certificate of Title and/or Registration to the county treasurer’s office.[xvii] She should not need to pay Certificate of Title fees.[xviii]
If the decedent owned the vehicle as an individual or as a tenant in common, what additional paperwork is necessary to properly remove the decedent from the title depends on whether there is an administration of the estate through the probate court.[xix] Once the required paperwork has been obtained, the paperwork will need to be brought to the county treasurer according to Iowa Code § 321.20.[xx]
The person(s) assigned as the executor(s) or administrator(s) will sign the title over to the new owner using their court-appointed authority. If they are the administrator, they will sign the back of the title with the name, then write “Administrator Probate No. ” following.[xxi] If they are executor, they will sign the back of the title with the name, then write “Executor Probate No. ” following.[xxii] A copy of the Letters of Appointment will also be necessary.[xxiii]
If there is no probate administration, then the person entitled to ownership of the car must execute proper documentation to transfer the title. If the individual died with a will, the Certification of Death Testate[xxiv] will be needed.[xxv] If the individual died without a will, then the Affidavit of Death Intestate[xxvi] is necessary.[xxvii] A copy of the death certificate should also be provided to the treasurer’s office.[xxviii]
If a trust owns the vehicle[xxix], then nothing needs to be done from a title and registration perspective until the trust distributes the vehicle. When it comes time for the trust to distribute, Trustee will sign the certificate of title. Additionally, either a copy of the trust or a certification of trust must be provided to the treasurer when the title is transferred.[xxx]
The insurance company must be informed about the individual’s death and coverage should be updated to reflect the new owner. Unless the policy otherwise specifies, a policy terminates with the death of the covered individual.[xxxi] Whether the policy premiums have been paid is irrelevant.[xxxii] If they do continue coverage after death, it is usually very limited as to who is covered and the scope of that coverage.[xxxiii]
It is illegal under Iowa law to drive a vehicle that does not have financial liability coverage or proof of the coverage.[xxxiv] Anyone driving the vehicle needs to ensure they have liability coverage and proof of the coverage when they drive.
The Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation is a partner of the National Agricultural Law Center (NALC) at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, which serves as the nation’s leading source of agricultural and food law research and information. This material is provided as part of that partnership and is based upon work supported by the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
[i] Iowa Code § 321.32 requires that the registration card to be carried in the vehicle.
[ii] It is possible, but not likely, that there is no insurance policy on the car. If this is the case, then the responsible individual should locate the document from Iowa DOT showing a bond (§321A.24), certificate of deposit (§321A.25), or certificate of self-insurance (§321A.34). See also, Iowa Code § 321.1(24B).
[iii] I.A.C. 761.400.1; 1977 Iowa Op. Atty. Gen. 287, 1977 WL 18997, (Iowa A.G.), November 14, 1977.
[iv] I.A.C. 761.400.1.
[v] Iowa Code § 321.42.
[vi] Iowa Code §321.47(3).
[vii] Iowa Code §321.47(3); see also, Sanderson v. Est. of Kisner, 477 N.W.2d 96, 97-98 (Iowa 1991) (holding that ownership of the car is not held in the estate but passes immediately to the heirs-at-law).For a very specific exception, see I.A.C. 761.400.19.
[viii] Iowa Code § 321.17.
[ix] Iowa Code §321.47(3); I.A.C. 761.400.1; 1977 Iowa Op. Atty. Gen. 287, 1977 WL 18997, (Iowa A.G.), November 14, 1977.
[x] Proper title of authority is explained below.
[xi] Iowa Code § 321.20(1); § 321.46(1).
[xii] Iowa Code § 321.47(2).
[xiii] Iowa Code § 321.46(6).
[xiv] I.A.C. 761.400.14(1)(a).
[xv] Interview with Kossuth County Treasurers Office on 03/23/2022. The renewal system will flag any registration renewal that is associated with a deceased individual.
[xvi] I.A.C. 761.400.14(1)(c).
[xvii] Form 411007. https://iowadot.seamlessdocs.com/f/411007ApplicationforCertificateofTitlendorRegistration (last accessed 03/23/2022).
[xviii] Iowa Code § 633.47(2).
[xix] Iowa County Treasurers’ Manual for Motor Vehicle Registrations, Titles, and Related Laws, page 135.
[xx] Iowa Code § 321.20(1).
[xxi] Iowa County Treasurers’ Manual for Motor Vehicle Registrations, Titles, and Related Laws, page 135.
[xxii] Iowa County Treasurers’ Manual for Motor Vehicle Registrations, Titles, and Related Laws, page 135.
[xxiii] I.A.C. 761.400.14(4).
[xxiv] Iowa DOT form 411083. https://iowadot.seamlessdocs.com/f/CertificationofDeathTestate. (last accessed 03/23/2022).
[xxv] Iowa County Treasurers’ Manual for Motor Vehicle Registrations, Titles, and Related Laws, page 135.
[xxvi] Iowa DOT form 411088. https://iowadot.seamlessdocs.com/f/AffidavitofDeathIntestate. (last accessed 03/23/2022).
[xxvii] I.A.C. 761.400.14(4).
[xxviii] FAQ – Vehicles & License Plates, No. 3. https://www.iowataxandtags.org/vehicle-registration/frequently-asked-questions/#VehRegFAQ3 (last accessed 03/23/2022); see also¸ See, Iowa County Treasurers’ Manual for Motor Vehicle Registrations, Titles, and Related Laws, page 135.
[xxix] According to the title instrument only. I.A.C. 761.400.1; 1977 Iowa Op. Atty. Gen. 287, 1977 WL 18997, (Iowa A.G.), November 14, 1977.
[xxx] I.A.C. 761.400.14(3)(b).
[xxxi] Grinnell Select Ins. Co. v. Cont'l W. Ins. Co., 639 N.W.2d 31, 36 (Iowa 2002) (citations omitted).
[xxxii] Id. at 37 (Iowa 2002).
[xxxiii] Id. at 36 (Iowa 2002).
[xxxiv] Iowa Code § 321.20B. Other means of liability coverage are not explained. See Iowa Code § 321.1(24B).
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