If you are among the millions of Americans who prefer to lease a car rather than buy it, you have obligations that are spelled out in the lease agreement. That contract and the laws of your state direct what happens, when a lease owner passes away.
What if the salesman at the car dealership shakes your hand and says don’t worry about a thing when you ask if your spouse is responsible for a lease if you die? Check the fine print, advises nj.com in the article “What happens to my car lease when I die?” There are a few parties to that contract, including the car dealership, the financing company and the person leasing the car.
Remember that a vehicle lease is a contract, so if you're the executor who’s managing the deceased person's affairs, you should review the terms of the vehicle lease. In some instances, death may be classified as an "early termination" of the lease, and payment obligations may continue.
If there is a co-signer on the lease, such as the deceased’s spouse, he or she may be liable for future payments. If not, typically they’re likely to be the responsibility of the deceased's estate.
In 2017, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill that would permit early termination of an auto lease upon the death of the lessee and prohibit the imposition of fees as a result. However, that piece of legislation didn’t make it out of the state Senate. There are plans to reintroduce the bill this session, but nothing has been done as of this date.
As a result, there is no law in New Jersey that keeps a car company from charging fees for early termination upon the death of the lessor.
While some car companies have policies allowing for early termination upon death, in many instances, because a lease is a contract, it continues. The deceased lessee’s estate is liable for making the payments. Therefore, if the written lease doesn’t have a clause dealing with early termination without fees, the lessee’s estate may be required to continue making the payments.
California and New York laws say the same thing: leasing companies can legally claim unpaid obligations from the estate of the deceased.
The car dealer isn’t required to, but it’s not unheard of for a sympathetic car company to be compassionate and just put the car up for sale, so actual losses would be minimal. A family member may also want to keep the car and may need to negotiate with the dealership.
An experienced Houston estate planning attorney should review the situation as part of the entire estate, including what the decedent wanted to happen to other assets, to help the executor understand their options. Every situation is different.
Reference: nj.com (May 24, 2019) “What happens to my car lease when I die?”