How every kind of asset is transferred

6 min read

Ways to transfer ownership

  • Real estate is transferred through a local land records office, usually called the County Recorder or the Registrar of Deeds.

  • Car title can be transferred through a state DMV, but you may need to apply for a new title if crossing state lines.

  • Contact the brokerage that holds stocks and other securities for instructions on how to transfer these.

  • Intangible goods such as patents will often need to be transferred through a federal office.

After a loved one dies, all of their assets will be taken over by new owners. Once creditors are paid off and items sold, whatever remains will need to be transferred to your loved one’s heirs or beneficiaries, so that they can take official ownership of their new property. 

Particularly if there is a clearly written will or well-drafted trust, this process can be quite simple. However, even with the best planning, there will be many governmental and business organizations that need to be dealt with.

Real estate

If a piece of real estate property is passing to a new owner through probate, either the beneficiary of the property or the executor of the estate will generally need to contact the land records office in the county where the property is. State law will dictate the requirements, but in general you will need to bring a death certificate and evidence proving your right to transfer ownership, along with several other necessary forms and affidavits. The county tax assessor will then determine if any liens on the property have been paid and tell you which forms or affidavits will need to be submitted to issue a new deed.

If the property still has a mortgage on it, federal law does not allow the bank to demand that you pay it off immediately if you are surviving spouse or child of the original owner, no matter what your credit situation. Other beneficiaries will generally be allowed to refinance or otherwise sign a new mortgage, and legally receive the same protections from foreclosure that your loved one had. In all cases, it is important to continue to make mortgage payments in the meantime before ownership is legally transferred to avoid foreclosure.

Real estate will often be transferred outside of probate through arrangements such as joint ownership, which usually requires a less complex transfer process. Houses that are co-owned, particularly in the case of married couples, usually have right of survivorship, meaning that if one owner dies, the entire property automatically becomes the joint owner’s. You will still likely have to file the transfer with the county land records office along with a death certificate, in order to become the sole owner. 


In 19 states, the law allows vehicles to be transferred outside of probate by designating them as transferable on death. Typically all the beneficiary needs to do in this case is contact the state Department of Motor Vehicles and present the vehicle’s title, the owner’s death certificate, a valid government-issued ID, and other required documents that will vary by state.

For vehicles without a TOD designation or other immediate means of transfer like a joint ownership, you will need to contact your state’s DMV to ask about the specific process for transferring the car’s title. In general, you will need to fill out an application for a certificate of title and an odometer disclosure statement, obtain the original certificate of title (if it has been lost or destroyed, you may have to apply for a duplicate title), and make a copy of the new owner’s drivers license and of the death certificate. You will likely have to prove that you have the right to transfer the vehicle to the new owner, for example by presenting documentation from probate court. There may also be a title fee, a title transfer fee, plate registration or transfer fee, and potentially taxes to be paid. Exact details will be available on the website for your state DMV. If transferring the title to a beneficiary in another state, you may need to have the new state issue a new title.

Whether the vehicle passes to its new owner through probate or not, if the car was still being paid off, the loan will still apply to the vehicle and must be either taken over or paid off by the beneficiary. 

Stocks, bonds, and equities

If stocks and other securities are being distributed to beneficiaries or heirs as part of probate, the executor will communicate with the bank or brokerage that your loved one used to manage their stocks. Each organization handles the process slightly differently, so talk to a representative before sending over paperwork. They will likely require a death certificate, the person’s full legal name and Social Security number, and a transfer of ownership form. 

If you need to transfer actual paper stock certificates, the stock company’s transfer agent will give you instructions. In general, the beneficiary should be able to take possession of the certificates and write a transfer request on the back of the stocks or complete a stock transfer form.

Savings bonds must be transferred through the United States Department of the Treasury. They will require with copies of the letters testamentary or letters of administration, a certified copy of the death certificate, and forms that will differ depending on the probate status of the bonds.

As with transferring any probate assets, it is important to make certain that all debts and taxes have been properly paid before transferring any stocks or bonds to beneficiaries. If there is not sufficient cash available for creditors’ payments, securities are often first in line to be sold, as they are more liquid than most other kinds of property.

If a securities account has a transferable-on-death designation, it is not a probate asset and can go directly to the named beneficiary. Taking ownership is generally a simple matter of contacting the bank or brokerage and presenting the requested information.

Intellectual property and other intangibles

Your loved one may have wanted to transfer an intangible good such as the copyright of creative works, a patent, trademark, or other intellectual property. If these properties were not specifically named in a will or trust and have not been placed into the care of an LLC or other corporation, they will pass on to heirs or beneficiaries with the rest of the estate. As valuing and fairly distributing such items can be a challenge, it is highly recommended that you seek the advice of an intellectual property or patent attorney, an estates attorney, or both.

In general, intangible assets like these are registered with a federal agency such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or the U.S. Copyright office. Each one will have its own processes and requirements for transferring ownership that can be found on their websites. 

Protecting yourself as an executor

When disbursing assets to beneficiaries as an executor, it is common practice to provide a release and receipt form with each asset that the beneficiary will sign and return to you. This form waives the beneficiaries’ right to dispute that the distribution was done according to the law and/or the will, and protects the executor from any liability relating to these assets. While generic versions of the release and receipt form are available online, it is best to work with an estate lawyer to create a document that protects you to the fullest extent. 

Whether or not your loved one left a will or other estate plans, the assets they collected over the course of their lifetime form a material legacy that will now be a part of the lives of those they left behind. Successfully transferring them to their new owners is a way to honor this legacy while completing the last of their financial affairs.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.