Let George Do It: A Widow's Guide to Navigating the DMV

Marjorie Greenberg, NNV Member & Volunteer

Marriage involves a division of responsibilities. If you wanted to do everything yourself, you probably would stay single (or maybe hire a personal assistant). For 50 years one of my favorite sayings was “Let George do it” (yes, my late husband’s name was George).  It was easy to remember because this is a common idiom, not to mention that several movies and a musical have this title (see Wikipedia).  If I wanted to eat dinner, I would decide what to make, go to the grocery store to buy the ingredients and come home and cook (except when George grilled, usually his job).  George’s responsibility was to join me at the dining room table and eat (without complaining, which he rarely did).  If we decided to entertain, especially a large crowd, I made the menu, called the invitees and did the cooking; George moved the furniture, as necessary. Occasionally, he grilled. If birthday cards and cards for other occasions needed to be sent, I bought them and sent them. But, if I wanted to do my taxes, because we filed jointly, George prepared them. If something in the house needed to be fixed, George did it or arranged for it to be done. If I wanted a peony bush, George planted it. He knew they were my favorite flower. It didn’t matter that we both worked full time; we had our division of responsibilities. And so it went.

That is until George died after a short illness (two months from diagnosis to death). Now, in addition to grieving, I was cooking for one (which isn’t that interesting), changing light bulbs and the ink cartridge on the printer and getting an accountant to do my taxes (thanks to a personal assistant, family and friends). It wasn’t the same, but I appreciated their help.

Then I realized that my car inspection and registration in Washington, D.C., where I live, were expiring in a few weeks. I decided that I needed to do this myself.  I was leaving on a trip and wanted to get it done. I had to get my car inspected in a part of town where I had never been; then I could renew my car registration online.  In the past, I only had to drive.

I used Waze for the first time and eventually got to the inspection site. There was no line and the inspection took fewer than ten minutes. I was on my way. Feeling empowered, I came home and got on the Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) website to register my car.  Of course, George always had done this.  As I said, I only had to drive. I was providing the necessary information, when I received a message that I was not eligible to do so because the “primary driver’s” license had expired.  Of course it had; sadly he had died.  I called the central DMV number and was told I had to take a copy of the death certificate to a satellite DMV office.  I thought this was unnecessary because my name was directly under my husband’s name on the registration, but there was no choice. No further information was provided other than the address of the closest satellite office in Georgetown.

This presented a problem.  I couldn’t find a copy of the death certificate. Fortunately, my son, who lives out of town, got a copy from the accountant, and again I was on my way, or so I thought.  But as a friend said, “Nobody ever leaves the DMV unscathed!” I naively drove to the satellite office, thinking I had solved my problems.  There was a long line and another hundred or so people already seated inside. Still there was special seating for “senior citizens”. I smiled at a 20 something and he sheepishly moved. I was quickly directed to a DMV employee. Again, I was encouraged. I never was so glad to be a senior!  But my optimism quickly turned into despair.

The clerk took one look at the copy of the death certificate and said, “Oh no, we need an original”.  She had to be kidding. An original to renew my driver’s registration?  And if that weren’t enough, I also needed an original updated Title, to show that I had paid off (or was still paying off) the loan.  This had not been stated on the phone, although I will acknowledge that after multiple clicks on the website, the title was mentioned (with limited detail).  At this point, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry (keep reading).

I pleaded; she checked with her superior. There was no reprieve. I asked her what would happen if I drove with an expired registration. She replied that I would receive a fine.  I asked how much, and she had to ask another employee.  She responded, “$100 dollars”.  I jokingly said, “I would be willingly to pay $1,000 dollars if I could just leave here with a new registration”.  She looked at me without responding. Then I realized that she might think I was trying to bribe her! I quickly clarified that I was only joking. She had to see the humor in this. She clearly did not.

Defeated, I went upstairs (the satellite DMV office appropriately is in the basement), and cried. Then I decided I would go home and eat a half pint of ice cream (coffee and Cherry Garcia, my favorites).  That helped.

By some miracle, I found originals of both documents. But I thought, what else would they need? The only way to find out was to return to the basement office with the long line. Two weeks after my original visit I returned. When I checked in, I was told I had to fill out a document with information I didn’t know, such as the current mileage on my car.  It said I could estimate, and I did.  I told the person who gave me the document that I shouldn’t have to fill it out because I didn’t have to when I was there two weeks ago. Had the procedures changed so quickly? It was possible. The document said it was for a temporary registration, which didn’t apply to me. She insisted that I needed to fill it out, so I did.  

Once again, I sat in one of the senior seats and was called within 10 minutes.  While waiting, I noticed that my original title also had listed George’s name first.  I despaired. I was now in a shorter line, when the supervisor came over and told everyone that the office’s computer was down!  Before I had time to scream or to cry, I learned that this only was for people who wanted new driver’s licenses.  I was cautiously optimistic. When it was my turn, I eagerly produced the requested documents.  As I had thought, the one I had just filled out was unnecessary!

The clerk spent an unusually long time perusing the documents and commented about the title.  She then called over her supervisor, who after a few minutes said there was nothing she could do.  I think this was because the computer was down.  I started to beg.  After several more minutes, the clerk had me sign over the title to myself and told me that I would get my new registration today, along with new license plates.  I would receive the new title in the mail in approximately ten days.  The cost would be $205 dollars. I was surprised by the cost but remembered that two weeks ago I had been willing to pay $1000 dollars. My husband’s original death certificate was returned to me, and, after thanking the clerk profusely, I literally danced out of the DMV!

There was only one thing left to do – go to my local gas station and have them remove the current tags (I’ll actually miss them) and affix the new ones.  Unfortunately, one of the screws was so rusted that it couldn’t be removed so I needed to drop off the car between 6:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. the next day.  A minor inconvenience, especially because I only live a few blocks from the gas station.

Less than a week later, the new title arrived in the mail.

I wrote this “essay” for a few reasons.  First, writing always has been my way of processing experiences, good and not so good.  Second, unlike the DMV employees, I do see some humor in the situation.  (Perhaps I’m being unfair to the first clerk.  She was only doing her job, as unreasonable as I considered it, or maybe she had a bad day). Third, I feel that this information might be useful for other widows in a similar situation and help them know which documents they will need to produce, at least in Washington, DC, (other States may differ) in order to renew their car registrations, avoiding multiple trips to the DMV satellite office, unless they would like an excuse to eat a half pint of ice cream.  

Addendum: Lessons Learned

1. Start the process of renewing your registration at least a month before it expires. This reduces your stress level. Recognize that procedures may differ somewhat in other States, although they are likely to be similar. Be sure to check on the requirements of your jurisdiction as needed.

2. The person in the main office did not give me complete information. This resulted in an unpleasant surprise when I went to the satellite office.  Press the person to whom you speak for details. Also, check the days and hours that the satellite office is open.  

3. Be sure to check whether you need an original death certificate. Order as many as possible from the funeral home at the time of the burial and put them in a safe place.  If you don’t  have one, you can order several (you often can order a maximum of four) from www.VitalChek.com The death certificate is issued by the state in which the person died and includes the deceased person’s social security number, which you will need for the VitalChek application.

4. You also will need an original copy of your current vehicle title, at least in Washington, D.C.  I was completely unaware of this.  If you financed the car, you will need to get it from the source of financing, often the dealer. It is suggested that you have the title of your vehicle re-titled in your own name immediately after you receive it, because you will need it before you can obtain a new registration or sell the car. You also may be able to have the title transferred solely to you when you present it at the DMV. The DMV then will issue you a new title, as well as new license plates. Your invoice will include the cost of the inspection and the cost of the new title.

5. Breathe a sigh of relief when the new registration is in your hands!

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