A motor vehicle's title is proof of ownership, equivalent to a real property deed. You need title to sell your vehicle or register it, and you don't want to buy a vehicle unless and until the owner gets the title to you and signs off to transfer ownership. But original titles, like everything else in life, get lost, end up in the recycling, waft out of the car window on a busy city freeway or get stolen when someone walks off with your briefcase of important papers. Can you get a duplicate? Of course you can, for a fee.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
To replace a lost certificate of title, file an application for duplicate title, signed off by all registered owners or the lienholder, if any, according to your state's rules.
How to File for a Lost Title
So you've lost your vehicle title, or at least you can't find it. Note that a lost or missing title is not like a lost or missing person. You don't file a notice with the authorities that your vehicle's certificate of title is lost. Instead, you file an application for a duplicate title.
Usually the department of motor vehicles (DMV) handles these matters, so ask there for the form and your state's rules. Every state will require you to identify the vehicle by license plate and vehicle identification number (VIN). If there is a lienholder, that's who has to file the application. Otherwise, it's all of the owners of title who sign off, and most states require that their signatures be notarized.
Online Services for Vehicle Registration
While each state has different procedures, for all of them you pay the current duplicate title fee and, a week or so later, a new certificate of title appears in the mailbox. You won't necessarily need to find a DMV office location and attend in person. Some states, like Wisconsin, allow you to make application online and pay online with a credit card. The procedure is fairly easy, and replacing your car title is not likely to be the most difficult thing you do this month.
The procedure is basically the same in every state. In California, Wisconsin, Michigan and most other states, you fill out the application for duplicate title, enter the vehicle details and your contact information and pay the registration fee. While the application forms and fee amounts differ slightly between states, the procedure is the same.
In California, if the legal owner of the vehicle or a lienholder of record is releasing their interest, the signature on the application for duplicate title form must be notarized.
How Do I Junk my Car Without a Title?
Most junk yards require that you have title to the car in order to junk it. In some states, you can instead file an application for duplicate title and give this to the junk yard.
Is it Against the Law to Sell a Vehicle Without a Title?
No, but it's foolish to buy or sell a vehicle without a title. Remember that it is the transfer of title that the state looks to determine who is the owner of the vehicle. If you sell a car without a title, you will remain liable for all parking tickets, registration and so on.
If you are buying or selling a vehicle and title is missing, both of you might go to the DMV together and apply for a new title. In some states, having both the buyer and seller eliminates the doubts that the agency might otherwise have about the legitimacy of the transaction, and speeds up issuance of replacement title in the buyer's name.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.