What Is the Car Loan Death Clause?

What Is the Car Loan Death Clause?
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A car loan is a secured loan that permits the borrower to purchase a new vehicle or used car by borrowing from a lender, sometimes the car dealership, although other financial institutions also issue auto loans. Most auto loans have terms of three to five years, although you may be able to get a 10-year auto car loan.

Unlike some other forms of debt, your car loan is not forgiven when you die. The car loan death clause is the portion of your loan paperwork that describes what happens to the auto loan if the borrower dies. In most cases, the borrower’s estate is responsible for the loan, liquidating assets to pay it off. But what happens if the estate, including liquid funds in checking and savings accounts, doesn’t have enough money to cover the loan?

Let’s look at a number of scenarios that can take place when someone dies with a car loan, what the car loan death clause means for the lender and what it means for the borrower and their surviving spouse or heirs.

What the Car Loan Death Clause Means for the Lender

When a person dies, they are considered to have defaulted on the loan if they don’t continue making the payments. Sometimes, a co-signer on the loan or the surviving spouse will continue to make the payments and keep the car. Even if the person was not a co-signer, the financial institution will often let the loan terms continue. When the loan is paid off, the survivor may need to show a death certificate in order to have the vehicle title transferred to their name.

In community property states, debt incurred while the couple was married becomes joint property upon one spouse’s death. Then, the surviving spouse would simply take over the payments the same way a co-signer would. Community property states in 2020 are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

In some cases, the deceased person will have an estate with assets that can cover the full cost of the loan. The executor of the estate would make sure the car loan gets paid off, and the car would remain part of the estate, to be distributed as per the will or as determined in probate.

If there’s not enough money in the estate to cover the loan, the lender has options. If there is no co-signer and none of the borrower’s family members steps up to make the loan payments, the lender can proceed with repossession. They would sell the car at auction, making back some or all of the loan’s value.

What the Car Loan Death Clause Means for the Borrower

While the car loan death clause gives the lender options to recover their funds if a person dies, it gets a bit more confusing for the borrower’s estate, family members and loved ones.

If there was no co-signer, family members, heirs or the surviving spouse of the loved one may have an option to transfer the loan to their name. They would continue making payments and own the vehicle when it’s paid off.

In other scenarios, the bank will require family members or the surviving spouse to refinance the car with a new loan. Since most lenders won’t approve a car loan without car insurance, they will need to transfer the registration and car insurance to their name as well. Interest rates and loan terms may change depending on the new borrower’s credit history, credit score and income.

In addition, if the loan value is greater than the vehicle’s Kelley Blue Book value, which means the borrower has negative equity in the car, the lender may not sign-off on the loan. These loans may also be considered “underwater” or "upside-down.” An auto loan is a secured loan, offering lower interest rates than credit cards or personal loans because the car acts as collateral if the borrower defaults. If a borrower has negative equity, the lender may not recoup their costs if they have to repossess and sell the car.

What Happens When The Deceased Person Wills the Car to An Heir

If the deceased has left the car to a loved one in their will, that person can legally take possession of the car, take over the payments and transfer the title to their name. To transfer the loan, the heir would need a copy of the will and a copy of the death certificate.

What Happens When the Deceased Person Doesn’t Have a Will

If there is no will, all the outstanding debt and assets would go to probate. In probate, the executor of the estate would dole out funds to pay off the car loan or determine who should inherit the vehicle and the loan. If there are no heirs and the estate doesn’t have the funds to fulfill the loan obligation, the lender would probably repossess the vehicle.

Car loans differ from credit card debt in this regard. First, the deceased person’s estate must try to use liquid funds, such as checking and savings accounts, and other assets to pay off the credit card debt. Any remaining debt will be forgiven.

It’s important to note that the estate does not have to use life insurance payouts to settle a car loan or to pay outstanding credit card debt. The life insurance beneficiary can cash out the policy and let the lender repossess the vehicle with no ramifications, while the credit card debt will be forgiven at that point.

How Credit Life Insurance Can Help Your Loved Ones

If you want a family member or surviving spouse to inherit your car without the payments, you can consider a credit life insurance policy. This is not a term or whole life insurance policy in the true sense of the word. Rather, it is optional insurance you can take out that would fulfill your debt obligations should you die.

Purchasing credit insurance can add a substantial amount to your loan payments, but the peace of mind can be worth it if you want to give your family one less thing to worry about as they settle your estate.

However, if your loved one doesn’t need the car and you don’t live in a community property state, you can just as easily let the lender take repossession of the car after your death.