In our region, almost all of us use motor vehicles. Therefore, understandably, many of us pass away while owning motor vehicles.
Like bank accounts, vehicles can be co-owned in survivorship. However, for jointly owned vehicles, registrations and various other circumstances, government-required forms may need to be signed by both owners at multiple, different times.
Like real estate, vehicles can be titled such that when the owner dies, a beneficiary automatically acquires ownership of the vehicle. A challenge with utilizing this method of post-death distribution is that the beneficiary must be noted by name on the title, and the vehicle would not go to the beneficiary’s heirs if the beneficiary died before the owner.
Of course, vehicles can be and sometimes are identified specifically in wills. Vehicles specifically identified in wills are distributed through the probate process.
Like most legal documents, wills that are poorly written in this context can create confusion. The confusion can come when a will identifies a vehicle that is later replaced by a newer model of the same vehicle. For instance, an owner may declare in a will that “my Ford Focus” is to be given to grandson Jimmy. Then, presume that the owner later trades in the first Ford Focus for a new Ford Focus. When the owner dies, does Jimmy get the new Ford Focus or does Jimmy not get any car, because the first Ford Focus was not owned on the date of the owner’s death?
Nonetheless, perhaps the biggest struggle in transferring vehicles through probate is when the vehicle is literally needed by a surviving spouse to live and work and the registration (commonly called “license plates” or “tags”) expire before the probate process can get the car re-titled into the surviving spouse’s name.
Ohio has a specific law designed to get most vehicles re-titled into surviving spouses’ names as soon as possible outside probate. Usually, vehicles can be automatically transferred to a surviving spouse as long as all of the vehicles to be transferred to that surviving spouse are not worth more than $65,000.
This law defines vehicles to include cars, motorcycles and most pickup trucks. Previous versions of this law limited the number of vehicles and usually excluded motorcycles and pickup trucks from being included as a “vehicle” except in very limited circumstances. Fortunately, current law is much simpler and straightforward.
This law that allows for automatic transfer of vehicles to a surviving spouse does not apply if any one of three conditions are in effect.
First, the law does not apply if the vehicle was jointly owned with rights of survivorship, as explained above.
Second, the law does not apply if the vehicle’s title designates a beneficiary to receive the vehicle on the owner’s death, also as explained above.
And, third, the law does not apply if the vehicle is specifically mentioned in a will. However, a person’s will may address disposition of all vehicles or all personal property without identifying a particular vehicle specifically, in which instance, the law could apply.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.