Titling Your Car Jointly
A Legal Moment

Asset Titling:  How is Your Car Titled?

   The manner in which assets are titled can have significant repercussions in terms of transfer at the owner’s death--and potentially in other areas.  With that in mind, you may wish to take a moment to check the title to your car—and what you find may surprise you.

In whose name(s) is your car titled?
   Years ago, vehicles in North Carolina could be titled in one name only.  That has changed, and now couples often choose to title their cars in both their names, generally assuming that at one owner’s death, the car will become sole property of the surviving owner.  This is, indeed, what happens when an asset is held by joint tenants with a right-of-survivorship feature attached to the joint tenancy.  However, the right-of-survivorship feature must be explicitly stated on a car title, and if it is not stated, then at one owner’s death, the surviving owner owns only one-half of the car and the other half — the deceased owner’s half — is subject to probate in the deceased owner’s Estate.  The deceased owner’s half may or may not end up passing to the surviving owner, depending on the determination of which persons are the deceased owner’s legal heirs, but in any event, a probate process would be required to transfer title.  (In contrast, with the right-of-survivorship feature, a surviving owner presents an original death certificate to DMV in order to change the title to his or her name.)
How can I tell how my car is titled?
   Look at your car title.  What name or names are listed?  If more than one name is listed, do you see the letters “JTWROS” on the title?  In order to include the right-of-survivorship feature in joint ownership of a car in North Carolina, the NCDMV car registration document is completed by including the letters “JTW” (“Joint Tenants With”) on the registration document.  The car’s North Carolina Title should then be issued to include the letters “JTWROS” (“Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship”) on its face.  If the title does not have “JTWROS” on it, there is no right of survivorship in the surviving owner.
How can I fix it?
   If you want a jointly-owned car to have the right-of-survivorship feature — and if the title lacks the letters “JTWROS” — the joint owners can take the title and registration to DMV and ask to have a new title issued.  Payment of a nominal transfer fee will be required.
Are there reasons NOT to title a car in both names?
   Despite the ease of transfer afforded by joint ownership with right-of-survivorship, some couples prefer to title each car in the individual name of its primary driver, because of potential increased liability when both names are on the title.  When a driver is at fault in an accident, it is typical for the injured party to bring an action against the owner of the vehicle as well as the driver.  This could potentially put certain otherwise protected joint assets at risk — for example, a married couple’s home that is deemed “entireties” property under North Carolina law and is protected from claims brought against just one spouse.  Sometimes titling a car in both names may be unavoidable -- if there is a loan on the car, the lender may require a married couple to title the car in both names.  In that case, title can be changed once the loan is paid, if desired.
Can my car be titled in the name of my revocable trust?
   In North Carolina, a car may be titled in the name of a person’s revocable trust.  It can be purchased in the name of the trust, or it can be later transferred to the trust, unless lender restrictions interfere.  It is generally a good idea to consult with the insurance company before transferring any insurable asset to a trust.
Bottom line:
   Confirm that you know how your car is titled, and if the current titling is not what you want, go to DMV and change it.  Joint owners generally want the right-of-survivorship feature as part of their ownership arrangement — and they may assume they have it — but upon examination, joint owners often find that the “JTWROS” designation is not to be found.

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Gay Vinson is an attorney at Marshall, Roth & Gregory, PC. Her practice is concentrated in trust and estate planning and administration.
  To receive more information on this topic or to suggest topics for future editions of "A Legal Moment," feel free to contact Gay by email ( or telephone (828.281.2100). 

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You may not rely on this content as legal advice for any specific situation, but should instead contact an attorney for specific advice.
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