After a house, a car is often the most valuable piece of property a person owns. Cars can also have practical value as well as sentimental value. When you put this all together, it’s clear that how vehicles are handled in probate can be a key issue for an executor or beneficiary of an estate.

What Is Probate?

To understand how cars are handled in probate, you need to know a little about how probate works.

After a person dies, the person’s estate often (but not always) goes through probate, a legal process in which a court oversees the distribution of the deceased’s assets and the payment of the deceased’s debts under the terms of the will. If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate, and Oregon estate law determines how the assets are distributed. The personal representative, often called the executor of the estate, is named in the will or appointed by the court to determine what assets and debts exist.

Probate is not always required. According to the Oregon State Bar, if bank accounts and property are co-owned with another person, the co-owner often owns these assets automatically, without having to go through probate. Additionally, if a person dies with very few assets, probate may not be necessary. However, probate is often needed to settle debts, resolve disputes and distribute assets.

Whether or not a vehicle has to go through probate will depend on several factors, including state law and whether someone else is named on the title.

What Is Needed to Transfer a Car Title After Death?

To transfer a car title after the owner has died, you will need to submit the required paperwork to the Oregon DMV. Exactly what is required will depend on whether or not the estate is subject to probate and whether or not the title has a joint owner with survivorship.

How Can You Transfer a Car Title Without Probate?

In Oregon, if an estate is not going through probate, a vehicle in the estate can be transferred to a beneficiary using a special affidavit. The affidavit must be completed by all of the heirs and submitted to the Oregon DMV along with the title. However, this option is only possible if no assets are going through probate.

Vehicles with Survivorship

Another way to avoid probate is to add a joint owner and survivorship to your Oregon vehicle title. On the title, there is a spot for a joint owner or joint owners. There is also a spot about survivorship. You can use these fields to include a joint owner and affirm that joint owners or lessees agree that the title will show joint ownership with the right of survivorship.

In Oregon, if a title has survivorship and one of the owners is deceased, the surviving owner or owners can transfer the title. The survivor will need to provide proof of death, such as a death certificate.

Vehicles without Survivorship

If the estate is subject to probate and the title does not show survivorship, the process is a little more complicated. For estates that are currently in probate, the Oregon DMV requires copies of the Letters of Testamentary or equipment documents showing who has been appointed as the executor of the estate. The executor must release the interest of the deceased on the title or on a separate bill of sale. If probate has been closed, the Oregon DMV requires a copy of the Decree of Final Distribution showing who has inherited the vehicle.

Avoiding Problems During Probate

Disputes can arise if a person dies without a will or if the person’s will is not clear. For example, if a person makes a handwritten will or adds handwritten notes to the will, the validity of the will may be questioned.

You can avoid problems by working with an estate planning attorney. Your attorney can help you create an iron-clad will supported by any other estate planning tools that make sense in your situation. If you are serving as the executor of an estate, an estate planning attorney can help you navigate the probate process.

Do you need help with how vehicles are handled in probate or other estate planning issues? Schedule a consultation with Skinner Law.


9600 SW Barnes Road, Suite 125
Portland, OR 97225
Phone: (503) 719-6603