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My boyfriend and I have been together for 13 years. He has been separated from his wife for 20 years. He has a lien on his car, and he did not will it to anyone. If I pay the lien, do I own it?

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  • 25
    You mention a will, is your boyfriend deceased?
    – Freiheit
    Mar 18, 2021 at 15:41
  • 9
    The name on the title is the person who owns the car.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 18, 2021 at 15:57
  • 16
    Paying off a lien doesn't alter ownership; it just frees the owner to sell the car.
    – chepner
    Mar 18, 2021 at 16:11
  • 4
    Where are you located? 13 years may be considered a Common Law Marriage (but maybe not if they never divorced) and change some answers. Is his (ex)wife's name on the car title? You would need her signature to sell it but not use it. Mar 19, 2021 at 15:31
  • lien - "2. (law) A right to take possession of a debtor’s property as security until a debt or duty is discharged." Mar 20, 2021 at 13:33

4 Answers 4

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(This is assuming you are in the US)

Not if your name is not on the title. The lienholder does not own the car and cannot give it to someone else just because they pay off the loan. The lien just keeps the owner from transferring the title without paying off the lien first.

You could buy the car from your boyfriend (or his estate; it's not clear from the wording in the question), who could then use that money to pay off the loan, remove the lien, and transfer the title to you.

But all that would need the consent of the owner of the car. You can't buy it out from under them.

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  • It's effectively as if she gave him a gift of the remainder of the loan, and he used that to pay it off, right?
    – Barmar
    Mar 19, 2021 at 14:36
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    @Barmar IF she just paid the loan off, then yes. What should happen is she purchases the car from him, and he uses that to pay off the loan and clear the title.
    – D Stanley
    Mar 19, 2021 at 15:02
  • Although that would presumably require her to pay the full value of the car, not just the remainder of the loan. Which is why paying off the loan doesn't make you the car owner -- imagine if there's just one payment left, it would be silly to get ownership.
    – Barmar
    Mar 19, 2021 at 15:07
  • @Barmar No, paying off the loan doesn't make you the owner because it's not a sale and transfer of title. I bought my current vehicle from my brother by paying the remainder of their loan. The lender provided him a clean title, which he then transferred to me. The title transfer is what makes someone the owner.
    – Logarr
    Mar 19, 2021 at 19:12
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    @Logarr I never said anything else. Your brother essentially sold you the car at price that happened to be the same as the remainder of the loan.
    – Barmar
    Mar 19, 2021 at 19:25
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First and foremost, if your boyfriend is deceased and didn't leave a will then that's an entirely different situation, in which case his estate goes into probate and everyone can fight it out in court as to who gets what property, or it could all end up belonging to the state, depending on where you live and the circumstances of his passing.

Keep in mind too that if he owed money on the vehicle then the lender is going to have first say in what happens until or unless the loan is paid off.

Assuming that neither of these is the situation...

You may be crossing a vehicle lien with a property lien, such as a tax lien. In the case of property tax liens, the lienholder has the right to foreclose on the property if the lien is not satisfied (with accrued interest) within a pre-determined period of time (as set forth by state law).

With vehicle liens, all it does is keeps the owner of the vehicle from being able to sell the car to someone else without paying off the lien first. It's why auto lenders put a lien on the vehicle until you finish paying it off. You have no legal means of disposing of the vehicle until or unless the loan is paid, at which time you receive clear title.

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    If this is in the US, and he has no will, then his estate will go into probate, where it will most assuredly be split between his wife and any of his issue (children), if he has any. This will be done by well established rules and precedent. As a girlfriend, you have no legal standing.
    – Glen Yates
    Mar 19, 2021 at 14:33
  • My understanding is that car liens do allow for repossession. Mar 19, 2021 at 18:28
  • That depends on the state and the circumstances, but it is not universal. And to @Glen's comment, if the girlfriend was living with him for so long then she might have a common-law claim, depending on the state, but the ice is very, very thin regardless.
    – RiverNet
    Mar 19, 2021 at 20:45
  • @SRiverNet Hard to have a common-law claim when there is an existing legal wife. Now if it is a legal separation, then maybe that could have some bearing, but IANAL. Note, I used definitive language in my 1st comment to underscore how unwise it is (from a legal standpoint) to have a relationship with a married person. And being separated for 20 years! - that, I can't even fathom.
    – Glen Yates
    Mar 19, 2021 at 21:38
  • I don't disagree at all! (grin) It's a messy situation to be sure, and there's not enough info for any of us to know how close to the bullseye we are in how we're interpreting this. Needless to say, it's doubtful the girlfriend has standing under any probable scenario.
    – RiverNet
    Mar 19, 2021 at 21:41
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Do not pay the lien - do not.

Even if you pay the lien and the title is transferred to your name - by whoever might do this. That car is not yours until it goes through probate. After someone dies and there is a transfer of ownership of any of their possessions the court will probably step back in time to the time of death and go by what was it then.

Meaning if you pay a $5000 lien on a car that is worth $20000. (Let's ignore who is on the title now, but it was BF at time of death). The court generally doesn't care that you paid the lien. They might even look at it suspiciously and wonder why would a lien be paid off before probate.

In reality probate courts are supposed to be fair. If they were not going to give you the car after you paid the lien they should use proceeds from the estate to make you even and then give the car to whoever.

But life isn't always fair and I have heard stories like yours where for example you pay the $5000. Probate court decides to give car to his sister because the will says so. Then probate court basically tells the sister to give you $5000 because the estate doesn't have $5000. Some courts might make her actually pay before transfer some may give her car and let you two work it out.

Realistically even if you aren't getting screwed by probate court - remember especially in smaller towns judgements are just as much about who you know or who your lawyer knows compared to the actual law - by paying the lien you still open yourself up to undo court costs (lawyers).

Sum it:

  1. You pay the lien does not infer you are titled owner.
  2. Even if lien owner has some ability to transfer title, they don't have authority to do that post mortem.
  3. So even if you get your name on the title, it could go back to the estate.
  4. Once car goes back to the estate. Anything goes.
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While simply paying the lien and expecting the title to transfer to you would not work, it may be possible to contact the bank and offer to buy the lien from them. If that works even though you are not the owner, you are the lien holder so in order for the ownership to be transferred to someone else they would have to pay the lien.

The risk here is that if the lien amount is far less than the value of the car, then whoever is granted the ownership in probate would pay it, but this is likely out of your control and at least gets your money back.

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