How can you prove car ownership without the title?

Young man standing next to his car and reading on his phoneImage: Young man standing next to his car and reading on his phone

In a Nutshell

There are ways to establish proof of car ownership without a title. If your title is lost or missing, you’ll need to use one of these methods to prove legal ownership if you want to sell your vehicle.
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Typically, you can use a car title to establish ownership. But what if your car’s title is lost or missing? An absent title complicates things, but there are steps you can take to prove the car is yours. Select the best alternative for your situation so you can quickly complete your transaction when selling or trading in your car.

What is a car title?

A car title is a document that identifies you as the vehicle’s legal owner. There are four main types of car titles: clean, clear, salvage and rebuilt.

  • A clean car title means the car has never been so damaged that it’s been deemed “totaled.” Insurance companies may write cars off as a total loss when they’re in serious accidents or suffer substantial damage. If a vehicle has a clean title, an insurance company has never written it off.
  • A clear title indicates that you’re the only party with an ownership interest in the vehicle. It shows you own the car free and clear, with no money owed to a lender.
  • A salvage title is assigned after a car suffers an event that’s caused a significant decrease in its value. For example, this could happen after an accident or theft — or in the wake of a substantial repair. Typically, a car that loses more than 75% of its pre-damage retail value receives a salvage title.
  • A rebuilt title identifies rebuilt cars. These cars formerly had salvage titles, and they’ve been repaired to make them suitable for road use.

Not all car owners receive a car title. You’ll normally receive a title if you paid for the vehicle with cash or have fully repaid your car loan. If you financed your car and still owe money to the lender (also called the lienholder), in many states, the lender will retain possession of the title until you’ve made all the loan payments. Once there’s no outstanding balance, you can request a copy of the title.

A title may include the following information:

  • Name and address of the vehicle owner
  • Make, model and year of the vehicle
  • Vehicle identification number
  • Odometer mileage
  • Date of vehicle registration

The title may include the lender’s name if you owe money on the vehicle. If the car has been salvaged or rebuilt, this will also typically be indicated on the title.

How to replace a car title

If you’ve lost your car title, there are ways to replace this vital document.

Replace a lost car title for a car owned outright

If you own your car outright, replacing a car title is a straightforward process: You must apply for a copy from the state where the vehicle is registered.

  • Some states allow you to apply for your replacement copy online. This route can be quick and convenient if it’s available in your area.
  • Other states require you to submit your application through the mail. This approach could potentially take longer than handling the task online.

Keep in mind that some states have rules regarding timing and issuing duplicate titles to prevent fraud. For example, Illinois won’t provide a duplicate title within 15 days of issuing the original title and won’t give you a duplicate within 30 days of issuing a previous duplicate title.

Once the state motor vehicle office has issued the replacement title, the preexisting title is null and void. So if the old title turns up after receiving the replacement, it’s best to destroy it to avoid confusion.

Request a copy from the lienholder

In most states, if you financed your car, the title remains with the lienholder until you’ve made all your loan payments. That means you need to pay off the loan if you want to get a copy of the title.

Once you’ve paid the outstanding balance, the lienholder will typically send a lien satisfaction or lien release notification to your local DMV. Upon receiving the lien satisfaction, the motor vehicle office will issue a new title that lists you as the sole owner.

Ask for a manufacturer’s certificate of origin

If you bought your car new from a dealer, you might be able to prove ownership by requesting a certificate of origin from the dealership that sold you the vehicle.

All carmakers must issue a certificate of origin for each vehicle they produce. This document allows the dealership that sells the vehicle to transfer ownership to the buyer. Once this occurs, the buyer may be able to title and register the car. At the time of the sale, the dealership typically includes the certificate of origin in a packet sent to the local DMV to register the vehicle.

The certificate of origin typically contains the following information:

  • Name and address of the car manufacturer
  • Make, model, year and vehicle identification number
  • The date at which the ownership transfer occurred, and the name of the person that took ownership of the vehicle
  • Signature (or signature stamp) of the manufacturer’s agent

Get a bonded title

If you can’t get a title by other means, you may be able to get a bonded title.

A bonded title is unnecessary if your title is lost or stolen while in your name. But a bonded title may be an option for you under the following circumstances:

  • You purchased the vehicle from a private seller who didn’t give you a title at the time of sale.
  • You bought the vehicle from a private seller who gave you a title that was defective in some way. A defective title is illegible, altered or improperly assigned.
  • The seller gave you a valid title that was lost or stolen before you could register the car in your name.

The steps involved in getting a bonded title vary from state to state. Here’s a general picture of what the process might look like.

  1. Get the vehicle inspected to prove legality. This must be done by a DMV representative or law enforcement professional.
  2. Complete an affidavit with your name and reason for filing the bond application.
  3. Notify the previous owner and lienholder (if applicable).
  4. Purchase the bond for the title.
  5. Sign the affidavit (this typically needs to be done in the presence of a notary).
  6. Gather proof of purchase documents to back up your application. These typically include the paperwork that shows the year, make and model of the car and the vehicle identification number.
  7. Submit the completed application to the appropriate office and wait for your paperwork to arrive.

Can you sell a car without its title?

Selling a car without proof of ownership is illegal in many states, and buyers may become suspicious if you try to sell your car without a title. For many, not having a title could be a deal-breaker. It’s best to obtain a title or proof of ownership before making a sale.

Some states will allow you to sell your car without a title if you can acquire one within a specific time, but make sure to look into your state’s requirements before starting a sale.

What’s next?

Begin replacing your car’s title by identifying which approach best suits your situation. For example, if there isn’t a lienholder and you’ve misplaced a title listed in your name, you can start by checking with your state’s motor vehicle office to see if you can apply for a replacement copy online.

About the author: Warren Clarke is a writer whose work has been published by and the New York Daily News. He enjoys providing readers with information that can make their lives happier and more expansive. Warren holds a Bac… Read more.