Death and the DMV

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.


The other day, I got a letter from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles notifying me that the registration on the minivan was expiring but that, because the title includes my late wife’s name on it, I would have to change said title to renew.

Considering that the title is a piece of paper that serves no purpose whatsoever until such time as I wish to sell the vehicle, and that I sold my 350Z, which also had my wife’s name on the title, a few months after her death (the utility of a two-seater for a single man with two small children is minimal) without much difficulty, it’s not at all obvious why I needed to change the title. Especially since both our names were on it and it clearly states that the other party has a right of survivorship.

But, bureaucracy being what it is, I dutifully complied and went to the DMV this morning to take care of the task.

Despite the fact that the Commonwealth had informed me that I needed to take this action, meaning they were quite aware that my wife had died, they nonetheless insisted I show them a certified death certificate, which they themselves had issued. Why, I have no idea. But, having anticipated this absurdity, I was prepared for it.

Additionally, I had to pay a $10 fee. Now, I’m thankfully in a position where the financial hit is negligible and, indeed, I’m pretty sure $10 doesn’t cover the administrative cost of issuing me a new title.  Still, it seems rather unsporting to force widowers to trudge to the DMV to take their dearly departed’s name off a piece of paper that otherwise just sits in a file drawer and then charge them for the privilege.

By DMV standards, at least, the experience was reasonably efficient and the two employees with whom I interacted were pleasant enough. Still, a rather surreal experience.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    When my sister in law passed away last year, Comcast told me I had to produce the death certificate to cancel her account. This seemed a bit unreasonable under the circumstances, so I dropped off her equipment at their local office and wished them luck collecting should they choose to leave her account open.

  2. rudderpedals says:

    It’s a hassle but it prevents the errant spouse from divesting the unknowing spouse of his title interest. It would be unreasonable IMO for the DMV to keep the certified death certificate.

  3. steve s says:

    I’ve had much better experiences with state DMVs in Fl and NC than I’ve had with, say, Dish Network, who actually broke the law to screw my brother, or GE, who refused to honor their warranty when a 3-month old fridge failed.

    Corporations have a financial interest in screwing you over. The DMV doesn’t.

  4. anjin-san says:

    @ steve s

    Second that. AT&T basically ripped off a relative of mine who is severely disabled. Hours of phone calls trying to get his money back. They told us he had been credited, which was not true. We ended up eating the loss, after wasting a lot of time. This crap is by design.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @rudderpedals: But you can’t sell a vehicle with two names on the title without either both people present or an affidavit or death certificate from the second.

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @James Joyner: I’m pretty sure that he was referring to the DMV’s requirement that a certified death certificate be presented to remove the deceased from the title. Otherwise anyone pissed at their spouse could wander down to the DMV and have them taken off the title unilaterally.

  7. Eric Florack says:

    @James Joyner: that would be somewhat more complex if there was a loan against the car since the bank would have to approve the title change, no?
    further, given regs being what they doubtless are, they too would require proof.

  8. @steve s:

    Corporations have a financial interest in screwing you over. The DMV doesn’t.

    I’m reminded of the old P.J. O’Rourke line to the effect that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the Republicans are ruining our schools, poisoning our environment, impoverishing our citizens and destoying the country in the name of getting rich, whereas the Democrats seem to be doing it just for fun.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @rudderpedals: @Gromitt Gunn: Ah, I see. Sure, if *I* were the one initiating this. But I was there because *they* initiated on account of my wife was dead.

    @Eric Florack: Probably so. We bought all our cars together straight out. Mine were all previously owned; hers, not.

  10. Tillman says:

    @James Joyner: Government agencies don’t talk to each other just to update records. If they do, it’s usually in one big push to update thousands of files.

    My brother works for a nonprofit doing data entry and maintenance on homeless charities for the state department of Housing and Urban Development, and due to multiple layers of bureaucracy involved, you don’t update records unless there are a whole lot of ’em. It’s one of those things that people who view government as a monolithic entity find frustrating when confronted with the reality.

  11. greg says:

    When I moved to Texas, I was required to change the title of my car to a Texas title. Since I was married when I purchased the car (divorced long time now), the title was in mine and my wife’s name. The DMV said I could send a ‘power of attorney’ form to her for signature, or simply have her sign the title as if she was selling the car. I opted to mail her the title, have her sign, and send it back to me. This was enough to re-title the car in my name only. No questions asked.
    I wonder if all of the crap you went through James was simply procedure, or did it really require some proof (maybe you could have just signed her name and been done with it?)
    I am curious, why the DMV has a requirement to change the title on the mini-van at all; since all you are doing was re-registering for the upcoming year, not actually selling the car. I was still able to register my car even without the title being changed. I eventually changed the title anyway, but it seemed as though it was not required, just something they preferred.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    It’s not just death but also divorce, The divorce settlement was clear – I kept my truck my X kept her car. I still had to jump through hops and present all kinds of paperwork to have the right to pay $40 for a new title.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Tillman: But, in this case, they clearly did. That is, DMV contacted me notifying me that they had become aware of my wife’s death, expressing the appropriate condolences, and informing me that I’d have to go through this process to clear the title and be able to re-register.

    I’m not outraged by this, merely bemused and mildly annoyed. But, then, I’m not an hourly employee so all it cost me was the $10, not a few hours lost wages. And I’m analytical enough that the process wasn’t emotionally wrenching for me in that way that it might well be for a large number of people. But I can see this being quite horrendous for people in somewhat different circumstances.

  14. Tyrell says:

    It is interesting how cars can now be connected more directly to the states DMV through the cars on board computers and black data boxes. While there might be some good in this for the car owners, I suspect that it will be ultimstely used to track and put more taxes and fees on car owners. Some states are already considering a tax on yearly miles driven. Some states are looking at taxing electric csrs more to compensate for the loss they are seeing in gas tax revenues, which in a lot of states does not go for its intended purpose of keeping up the roads. So these people who went out and paid a huge some for a Duracell car are getting a stab in the back for trying to go green. This data from cars is also used to keep up with the expensive and bothersome vehicle inspections and emissions test.
    If your car has one of those annoying engine code lights come on, the DMV will be able to know about it and you will probably get a dreaded letter threatening fines if you do not get it fixed. Best thing to do is to buy an 1985 Ford or Chevy: no computers, black data boxes, engine lights, or emission tests.

  15. Eric Florack says:

    @Tyrell: I can tell you there are many trucking firms taking the same approach, these days

  16. ernieyeball says:

    @Ron Beasley: I still had to jump through hops…

    I’ll bet it wasn’t as much fun as Ann Margaret had in Tommy swimming in beans and chocolate…