What Happens to the License Plates When Your Car is Totaled?

A license plate and a totaled car, representing what happens to a license plate after a car is totaled

You might wonder what to do with the license plates of a car that is totaled after an auto accident. In this article, we will tell you what the rules are for the license plates of a totaled car in California.

A car is considered totaled when the cost of fixing it (plus its salvage value) is more than or equal to its actual cash value. To get paid by your insurance company, you have to follow certain steps, including giving back your license plate to the DMV.

First, you must apply for a Salvage Certificate or a Nonrepairable Vehicle Certificate and send it to the DMV. You have only 10 days to return the license plates of your vehicle. You also have to pay a fee for the Salvage Certificate.

Table of Contents

How to Get the Best Insurance Settlement for Your Totaled Car

You may lose your chance to get an insurance settlement if you don’t submit your application on time. There are many expenses to think about, so you don’t want to mess up. The insurance company will cover the salvage value of your vehicle and may reimburse you for the cost of licenses, transfers, and taxes.

Insurance companies consider many factors to decide the value of a settlement. You should get an amount that matches the value of similar vehicles in a similar state to yours. The make, model, year, and mileage of your car may also influence your insurance settlement. Vehicle features and your location can also affect the settlement value.

What If My Insurance Settlement Is Less Than My Car’s Worth? Fight for What You Deserve!

Facing a totaled car is already stressful, but discovering that your insurance settlement falls short of your car’s true value adds another layer of frustration. This situation, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon.

Insurance companies prioritize their bottom line and often undervalue vehicles during the claims process. However, you don’t have to accept a lowball offer and suffer financial hardship.

Several factors can contribute to an inadequate settlement:

  • Undervaluation: Insurers might use tactics like outdated pricing guides or selectively choose comparable vehicles to minimize payouts.
  • Hidden Damage: Not all damage gets readily identified. An experienced attorney can help uncover overlooked issues that increase your car’s value.
  • Lack of Experience: Representing yourself against insurance companies, with their teams of adjusters and lawyers, can put you at a disadvantage. Legal professionals understand car valuation and claim procedures, and having one puts you on a level playing field.

Your Rights and Recourse

Don’t let the insurance company dictate your options. You have rights, and an attorney can help you exercise them effectively:

  • Negotiation: A lawyer can analyze your case, gather evidence supporting your car’s true value (repair estimates, comparable sales data), and negotiate aggressively with the insurance company to secure a fair settlement.
  • Mediation or Arbitration: If negotiation fails, legal guidance can help navigate alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation or arbitration to reach a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Litigation: As a last resort, if necessary, your attorney can prepare and file a lawsuit to pursue the full compensation you deserve in court.

Beyond the Settlement

Legal help extends beyond securing a fair settlement. Your attorney can assist with:

  • Gap Insurance Claims: If you have gap insurance, ensure you receive the full benefit you’re entitled to. Lawyers can advocate for your rights within the gap insurance policy.
  • Loan Payoff: If you still owe money on the car, legal guidance can help ensure a smooth loan payoff process and minimize financial burdens.
  • Other Losses: An accident might involve other losses beyond the car itself, such as personal injuries or damaged belongings. Your attorney can assess these losses and pursue compensation for them as well.


  • Time is of the Essence: Act promptly. Contact a lawyer soon after receiving a lowball offer. Evidence weakens over time, and legal deadlines might apply.
  • Free Consultations: Many personal injury lawyers offer free consultations to assess your case and discuss your options. This allows you to explore your legal rights without upfront financial commitment.
  • No Win, No Fee: Many personal injury lawyers work on a contingency basis, meaning you only pay if they win your case. This eliminates the financial risk of pursuing legal action.

Facing an unfair insurance settlement after a totaled car is stressful, but you don’t have to go through it alone. By seeking legal counsel from a skilled personal injury lawyer, you can fight for the compensation you deserve and navigate this challenging situation with confidence.

Remember, you have rights, and legal professionals are there to help you exercise them and achieve a just outcome. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help and take control of your situation.

What Are the Regulations Regarding License Plates for a Totaled Vehicle?

Each state has its own regulations regarding license plates after a totaled vehicle. Generally, you have three main options:

Surrendering the Plates

Surrendering your license plates to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is often the most direct and common course of action after a totaled car. Here’s how it typically unfolds:

  • Contact the DMV: Reach out to your local DMV to inquire about their specific surrender process and requirements. Some states might necessitate obtaining a salvage title for the totaled vehicle before plate surrender.
  • Gather Necessary Documents: Prepare documents such as the vehicle’s title (or salvage title), registration, and proof of insurance.
  • Return the Plates: Bring the plates and required documents to the DMV for processing.
  • Receive Refund (if applicable): In many states, you’ll be eligible for a refund of any unused registration fees, providing a small financial reprieve amidst a stressful situation.

Keeping the Plates

If you have another registered vehicle that utilizes the same type of license plates, transferring them can offer a seamless solution.

Here’s how it generally works:

  • Confirm Eligibility: Verify with your DMV if your other vehicle qualifies for plate transfer. Requirements often include matching plate types and vehicle classifications.
  • Complete Transfer Forms: Obtain and fill out the necessary transfer paperwork from the DMV.
  • Submit Documents: Provide the completed forms and any required documentation, such as proof of insurance for the new vehicle.
  • Affix Plates: Once the transfer is approved, remove the plates from the totaled car and securely attach them to your other vehicle.

Retaining the Plates

In select states, you might have the option to retain your license plates for a future vehicle, even without an immediate replacement. Here’s what to anticipate:

  • Check State Regulations: Consult your DMV to determine if plate retention is permitted and uncover any specific rules or fees associated with this option.
  • File Storage Application: If allowed, submit an application to store your plates for future use.
  • Pay Storage Fees (if applicable): Some states charge fees for plate storage, so be prepared to cover those costs.
  • Adhere to Specific Regulations: Understand any restrictions regarding the type of vehicle you can use the plates on in the future, as well as any timeframes for their use.
Pro Tip
Contact your local DMV as soon as possible after totaling your car to understand the specific requirements and deadlines for handling your license plates.

What if I Have Personalized Plates?

Personalized plates, often imbued with sentiment and individuality, pose unique questions after a totaled car. The fate of these cherished mementos varies across states:

  • Holding Onto the Memories: Some states allow you to keep your personalized plates, albeit with additional fees and specific regulations. This might involve transferring them to another qualifying vehicle within a set timeframe or storing them for future use.
  • Letting Go, but Not Forgetting: Other states require surrendering personalized plates upon vehicle surrender. However, you might be able to repurchase them later for a new car, albeit at the prevailing fee.
Contact your local DMV and inquire about their specific policies regarding personalized plates after a totaled car. Ask about retention options, transfer possibilities, and potential fees involved.

What Happens to Out-of-State Plates When My Car is Totaled?

Totaling a car with out-of-state plates adds another layer of complexity. Both your home state and the state where the vehicle was registered have a say in the fate of your plates:

  • Following the Rules of Registration: The state where the car was registered usually dictates the initial surrender process. Contact their DMV to understand their requirements and deadlines for returning the plates.
  • Home State Considerations: Your home state might have separate regulations regarding transferring or retaining out-of-state plates, especially personalized ones. Reach out to your home DMV for specific guidance.
Keep copies of all communication and paperwork exchanged with both DMVs throughout the process. This documentation can be useful if any discrepancies or issues arise.

Remember, dealing with personalized or out-of-state plates after a totaled car requires extra attention and state-specific knowledge. Don’t hesitate to contact your local DMVs and seek clarification to ensure a smooth and compliant resolution.

Can I Salvage My Car Parts?

Depending on the severity of the damage, your totaled car might still contain valuable parts. Here’s how to explore this potential source of financial recovery:

  • Assess the damage: Determine which parts remain intact and functional. Consult mechanics or salvage yards for expert evaluation.
  • Research market value: Research online marketplaces or consult salvage yards to understand the potential value of these parts.
  • Decide on your approach: You can sell parts individually, bundle them as a lot, or sell them directly to a salvage yard. Each option has its pros and cons in terms of effort and potential return.
  • Obtain necessary approvals: Check with your lender and insurance company for any restrictions or required procedures before selling salvaged parts.

Remember, selling salvaged parts requires time, effort, and market knowledge. Weigh the potential return against the investment of your time and energy before making a decision.

An infographic titled "can i salvage my car parts after an accident?" with four steps: assess damage, research market value, decide on approach, and check for approvals. icons for each step illustrate the content.


Frequently Asked Questions: Totaled Car and Beyond

What happens to my regular registration fees if I surrender my plates?

If you haven’t used your full registration period, you might be eligible for a refund for the unused portion. Contact your DMV to learn their specific policies.

Does gap insurance automatically cover the full difference between my loan balance and the car’s value?

Not always. Gap insurance typically covers the difference up to a certain limit, so check your policy details carefully.

Can I keep my personalized plates if I don’t have another car right away?

It depends on your state’s regulations. Some states allow storage of personalized plates for future use, while others require surrendering them.

What if I disagree with the insurance company’s settlement offer for my totaled car?

You have the right to negotiate. Gather evidence supporting your claim’s value and consider seeking legal advice if necessary.

Is it worth selling salvaged parts from my totaled car?

It depends on your time, effort, and expertise. Research market value and weigh the potential return against the investment of your time and energy.

What documents do I need to surrender my plates after totaling my car?

Contact your DMV for exact requirements, but it typically includes the vehicle title (or salvage title), registration, and proof of insurance.

What if I totaled a car with rental plates?

Follow the rental company’s specific instructions and procedures for reporting the accident and handling the plates.

Where can I find more information about my state’s regulations regarding totaled cars and license plates?

Your local DMV website is the best starting point. You can also search for relevant state government websites or seek legal advice for specific guidance.

Contact a Car Accident Lawyer at Text Kevin Accident Attorneys

If you’ve totaled your car, consider consulting an experienced car accident attorney who can advise on the legalities of plate surrender and other post-accident procedures, help you understand your rights, and ensure you receive fair compensation from your insurance company or the at-fault party.

Remember, while losing your car is stressful, understanding the process and knowing your options can help you manage the situation effectively.

Contact us today for a free consultation, and let us help you during this challenging time. Call (800) 900-9393 for more information.

Kevin Crockett

Kevin Crockett

Kevin Crockett is an award-winning personal injury lawyer who understands the impact an accident can have on someone’s life. That’s why he aggressively fights for each of his clients.

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