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
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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