Selling used cars during a California probate

I am frequently asked about selling used cars when there is no probate – i.e. when the car is the only asset or one of the only asset. However, today I want to talk about selling used cars during a California probate.

First of all it’s important to remember that the personal representative has a fiduciary duty.  That generally means they need to take care to maximize profits for the estate. So, selling a car for significantly less than fair market value would be a violation of that duty.  Don’t sell the car to your best friend for $100. That’s not ok!  What is fair market value?

In my opinion selling a used car has a huge range of possibilities.  That is, generally it’s easiest to sell to a used car dealer and hardest to do a private party sale to a stranger. However, for maximizing absolute dollars I would say the private party sale where you advertise on websites like craigslist, Ebay, Autotrader, Cars, Carfax, etc… brings potential customers to you. Having said that, a private party sale can be a huge pain in the butt and a huge time commitment.  Plus, you have strangers coming to your home which during Covid-19 brings additional concerns.

With the above said selling to a used car dealership is generally the easiest way to sell a car. However, that has not been the case with probate sales as the leader in used car purchases, CarMax, does not buy cars in a deceased person’s name in my experience. I recently heard of a website called which claims on their website to beat CarMax (or other reputable) offers AND they claim they will buy a car with a deceased person’s name on it.  I thus would check with them. I have not checked with Carvana but I would do that too as they are quickly catching up to CarMax I believe.

One way to help you meet your fiduciary obligation is to talk to the heirs. If they all agree, preferably in writing, to you selling a car to CarMax or similar dealership I would say that gives you some protections. No guarantees in life but at least some protections.

You should ask your attorney what they think you should do to meet your fiduciary duty. Each case is unique!

-John Palley

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