What to Do If You Inherit an Old Car

Getting the Car

So, you've inherited a car -- congratulations! Picking up your ride is going to be more complicated than gassing it up and driving it home. Like weaving through a series of orange cones and demonstrating your parallel parking skills to get your license, taking legal possession of an inherited car is a multipart process.

The most complicated part of the entire process is probate, which is where the deceased's estate is administered to his or her beneficiaries. Although some kinds of assets -- such as jointly-owned property -- can be excluded from the probate process, automobiles, regardless of their value, almost always have to go through probate before the title can be transferred to the beneficiary.

What does this mean for you? First of all, the probate process is probably going to cost you. Federal estate taxes (which are often 45 percent or more for multimillion dollar estates) must be paid before anything else, so Uncle Sam will take his cut before the probate process even begins. However, you're still going to have to pay any and all outstanding debts and fees before you take possession of the title. But don't start brushing up on your local tax laws just yet; the probate process is typically handled in the jurisdiction where the deceased party lived.

Of course, we're assuming that no one's contesting the will. If there's someone else laying claim to your bequeathed car, things are going to get a lot more expensive. Contested wills aren't restricted to the rich and famous. Squabbling siblings, jilted spouses and incensed secret lovers all may lay claim -- and maybe even provide evidence -- that the vehicle left to you isn't rightfully yours.

Unless the car holds important personal sentiment, is exceedingly valuable or signifies the statute of your unfaltering principles, you may just want to let it go. Contested wills can take years to sort through and if you're named the legal beneficiary, you may end up having to sell the car (and more) just to pay off court costs and attorney fees.

That's right -- we said attorney. Regardless if your inheritance is contested, you may want to consider hiring one. The probate process differs by state, but it's almost always complicated. Considering the multitude of formal procedures and paperwork the will's executer must address, you can limit your liability by letting a probate lawyer handle the process. So, unless you're going to be the proud new owner of a decades-old station wagon with 200,000 miles on it, you may want to have an attorney look over your paperwork.