How to terminate a license after death

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Losing a loved one can be difficult and overwhelming. The emotional toll is steep, and several time-consuming details need to be addressed. Even if the loved one left a detailed plan, it is not uncommon to miss a few things that must be handled.

Most people prioritize canceling financially-related items such as credit cards, insurance policies and automatic payments. While this is an essential first step, you may not realize how important it is to cancel identification cards as well, such as a loved one’s driver’s license. Doing so could prevent possible identity theft, which is a growing problem for both the living and the deceased. The last thing anyone needs during bereavement is the stress of fighting fraud due to identity theft, so it is better to close everything out as soon as possible.

How to cancel a driver’s license after death

Each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has its own rules about how it issues and cancels a driver’s license. It is best to contact the deceased person’s DMV for information (or refer to the table below). In some states, you may not need to cancel a license because Vital Records will inform the DMV of the license holder’s death, and the license will be canceled automatically. For states that require you to cancel the license, follow these steps:

1. Collect the death certificate

Before you can cancel a driver’s license, you will need the official death certificate to show the person is deceased. Death certificates can take anywhere from one day to several weeks to be issued, depending on the state and the reason the person died. In general, a death must be recorded within 72 hours with the health department and five to seven days with the state.

2. Make an appointment with the DMV (or visit one)

DMVs generally do not allow you to cancel a loved one’s driver’s license online. You will need to go in person. Making an appointment can help you avoid the long lines you typically find as a walk-in.

3. Cancel by mail

If you are unable to visit the DMV, most states allow you to cancel the driver’s license by mail. You will generally need to send:

  • A letter explaining you would like to cancel the deceased driver’s license
  • A notarized or certified copy of the death certificate
  • The original driver’s license

Identity theft and the deceased

It may surprise you to find out that even the deceased can be victims of identity theft. Commonly known as “ghosting,” scammers search for information about recently dead relatives in a number of ways, including:

  • Obituaries: Published death notices can be mined for home address, date of birth and names of spouses or children — all useful information when verifying identity or applying for credit.
  • Mail: Someone can find bank or mortgage information, tax-related documents and even part or all of a Social Security number in the mail.
  • Social media: Depending on what your deceased relative shared online, fraudsters could gather information, including birthdays, family members, phone numbers and email addresses, by viewing their social media accounts.

The AARP reports that the identities of almost 2.5 million Americans who are deceased are used every year to apply for loans, open credit card accounts and even get utilities or cell phones.

If the accounts are not properly closed and canceled for being fraudulent, the next of kin can be ultimately affected. John Yanchunis, head of Morgan & Morgan’s Class Action and Cybersecurity practices, representing For The People, explains, “A spouse of a deceased might be pursued for collection in those states where a spouse is liable for the care and necessities of a spouse. There would be, of course, a defense to any claim because the deceased spouse has been a victim of fraud, but a living spouse might go through a personal hell having to establish that their deceased spouse never took out the alleged loan and that, as a result, the surviving spouse is not responsible.”

That is why it is so important to prevent identity theft in the first place by terminating accounts and IDs, even if they seem harmless. An experienced cyberthief or fraudster could do damage if they get hold of someone’s sensitive information. Canceling a deceased person’s driver’s license should be part of the vital process. According to the Virginia DMV, “This simple procedure [of canceling a driver’s license] removes the deceased’s name from DMV’s mailing list. By doing so, you can avoid future mailings and prevent others from possibly using the name for fraudulent purposes.”

What else should be canceled?

Now that you have a better idea of how a deceased relative could be compromised, it is important to realize that other items need canceling to ensure that personal information does not get into the wrong hands. The following are a few other vehicle-related items that should also be canceled or transferred. Fortunately, some of the items listed can be done together to save you time.

Car title

The car title lists the owner of the vehicle and their home address. You will need to transfer the title to sell the car in the future or if you wish to continue driving the vehicle. You will need to visit the DMV with the death certificate and the original title certificate to transfer the title. You will probably need to fill out and sign the state’s version of an affidavit certifying there is no probate before the vehicle title may be transferred legally to you.

Car registration

Once the car title transfer is complete and the vehicle is in your name, you can register the car. You will need to get car insurance before registering the vehicle and may also need a smog or emissions inspection, depending on the car’s age and local laws.

License plates

The license plates of a deceased person’s vehicle should be turned in with the driver’s license, along with a certified or notarized copy of the death certificate and a cover letter. You may return the license plates to the DMV or mail the plates in. Consult with the state’s DMV office for the mailing address or further information on how to return the plates.

Handicap placards

The DMV also issues handicap placards that can be hung on the rearview mirror to park in disabled spots. If you return the deceased person’s driver’s license and the vehicle’s license plates, you could also send the handicap placard back.

Auto insurance

To cancel auto insurance, call the carrier to notify them. They will likely request that you fax or email them a copy of the death certificate before canceling the policy.

Car loans or leases

A car loan is not forgiven upon death. The balance will have to be settled from the estate’s funds. You may be able to take over the lease or loan if you contact the lender with documentation showing you are the beneficiary, although whether it is permissible depends on the lender and state laws.

How to cancel state by state

As mentioned, not all states require someone to cancel a driver’s license on behalf of the deceased. Certain states receive notifications of drivers who have passed from their Vital Records Department and process the cancellation automatically. The states below provide additional information about how to terminate a license after death.

What the experts say

Letha Sgritta McDowell, CELA, CAP, Certified Elder Law Attorney, President-elect of the National Association of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA)

McDowell explains why ghosting is a growing issue. “The deceased are potentially easy targets because their names, ages, family members and occasionally other personal details such as the names of their parents are publicly available in obituaries published in papers and online. Not only that, they are no longer monitoring their credit to determine if their identity has been stolen.” McDowell advises loved ones to lock a deceased family member’s credit file, which can be done by requesting a credit freeze from each of the three credit bureaus.

John Yanchunis, Head of Class Action and Cybersecurity Practices, Morgan & Morgan

Yanchunis suggests loved ones avoid putting off the closing of accounts and taking the necessary steps to secure personal information as soon as possible to prevent the extremely stressful and costly process of having to prove fraud.

He also recommends reviewing the information provided by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a national nonprofit organization offering free assistance to individuals impacted by identity theft. “They recommend obtaining at least 12 copies of the official death certificates in order to immediately notify relevant credit card companies, banks, financial advisors, etc., determining any outstanding debts and how they will be dealt with, ordering copies of and reviewing the deceased’s credit reports and notifying all relevant agencies (Social Security, Veteran’s Administration, insurance companies, etc.).”

Written by
Cynthia Paez Bowman
Personal Finance Contributor
Cynthia Paez Bowman is a finance and business journalist who has been featured in Bankrate, Business Jet Traveler, MSN, CheatSheet.com, Freshome.com and TheSimpleDollar.com. She regularly travels to Africa and the Middle East to consult with women’s NGOs about small business development and works with select startups and women-owned businesses to provide growth and visibility.
Edited by
Insurance Editor