Transferring your vehicle title before, during or after a divorce requires someone's permission -- either your ex's or that of the court. Your ex can sign off on the car voluntarily, but if she doesn't, you need a court order, usually a divorce decree that gives the vehicle to you. A judge can enforce the decree if your ex doesn't cooperate, but the court can't and won't make the transfer of title for you -- that's up to you.
Who Gets the Vehicle
You don't necessarily have to wait for your divorce to be over if your ex is in agreement to give you the car. But if your divorce is contentious, the court must decide who gets the vehicle. In equitable distribution states, the judge divides marital property in a way that seems balanced given all the factors specific to your marriage. In the nine community property states -- Wisconsin, Texas, Nevada, California, Idaho, Arizona, Louisiana, Washington and New Mexico -- marital assets are typically divided in half. Alaska is also a community property state, but only if spouses enter into an agreement to treat marital property as community property. A car can't be divided between you and your ex, so if the judge gives the car to you, he typically gives your ex some other property of equal or similar value.
Who Holds the Existing Title
If the vehicle's title is in your ex's sole name, the next question becomes whether it's up for grabs in a divorce. If it was purchased during your marriage, states commonly consider it marital property regardless of whose name is on the title. But if your ex owned the car before you got married, this makes it a premarital asset, and it usually remains his own separate property after the divorce. If you and your ex reach an agreement without involving the court or going through a divorce trial, the car can go to whoever you decide should have it -- the court generally won't overrule your decision.
How to Transfer Title
If you and your ex hold title to the vehicle in joint names, changing this is usually a simple matter of just applying for a new title in only your name, removing hers. Some states accept a copy of your divorce decree to do this if it clearly states that you've been awarded the car. Depending on the state, you may not need your ex's signature or cooperation. Check your state's website to learn the exact laws and procedures where you live.
If you're transferring the car from one name to another, take the title to your state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Depending on where you live, you may need to submit additional forms, and these can vary by state. You can usually pick them up at the DMV office or download them from its website. In addition to submitting the required forms, your ex has to sign the title, indicating that she's turning ownership over to you. You must sign the title as well, accepting the car, and submit it to the DMV, which then issues a new title in your name. States typically require proof of insurance coverage as well, and the policy should be in the name of the registered owner.
Issues with Financed Cars
If there's a joint loan against the vehicle, you need to take care of this as well -- and, in fact, your ex might not agree to sign off on the car while he's still on the loan. Lenders aren't bound by the terms of a decree, so even if your decree says that you intend to make all the loan payments going forward, the lender can go after your ex for payment if you default. His name should be removed from the loan, and this usually means refinancing it into your name alone.
The lender also has to make a special release of the title, "for transfer purposes only," so you can change the title into your name. While you have a loan against the vehicle, the lender holds the title as security for the loan, so it must make this temporary release through the DMV to allow it to make the change. As soon as the name is changed on the title, the release is voided and title is once again held by the lender. You can contact your lender before changing title to learn its requirements -- they may vary by lender -- and facilitate the process.