Registration & Titling
An overview of state level boat registrations and titling.
Registration Defined - Boat registration is a
process by which state and territorial jurisdictions grant
operational privileges for all types of watercraft. This is
evidenced by a certificate of registration which must be present on
the boat when underway. Registration is also a means of revenue
enhancement as it typically involves the collection of fees and
State Titling Defined - State boat titling is often equated to registration, but it serves an entirely different purpose. This is a service provided in certain states that affords an owner with a certificate of ownership for the subject boat. Although boat titles are typically issued in conjunction with a first time registration, this is not always the case. They may be attained on a stand-alone basis under certain conditions. Boat titling is mandatory in some jurisdictions, optional in others, and not even offered by certain states.
Territorial Registration - U.S. territories such as American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands all have procedures for registering boats. As a practical matter, their registration requirements and procedures are typical of those here in the states. All references to state level boat registration will therefore include the territories.
Comparisons - Boat registrations are similar to those for vehicles in that they are periodic, involve tabs or stickers, and registration numbers are issued for both. However, some boats are prohibited from displaying their assigned numbers and others may be exempt from registration altogether. Such contradictions are brought about by the federal government's involvement in vessel documentation which is another form of boat registration.
Numbering System - A uniform numbering system for non-documented vessels was devised and implemented by the U.S. Coast Guard some time ago. This involved a nationwide method of registering boats in a consistent manner. The Coast Guard subsequently allowed individual states to take over such activities on the condition they would adhere to the established system. This resulted in complete abdication on behalf of the Coast Guard which now administers vessel documentation on an exclusive basis.
Documented Boats - Federal regulations prohibit a documented vessel from becoming titled in any other manner. State jurisdictions are accordingly not allowed to issue a title if the subject boat is actively documented. However, the Coast Guard does not view state level registrations as titles. Certain states have therefore elected to register documented boats whereas others may allow an exemption under such circumstances.
Registrations as Titles - State boat registration certificates may have the same appearance as titles, but are not intended for this purpose. This becomes problematic however in those few states states that still do not provide boat titling services. Under these circumstances, the respective registration certificates are widely accepted as proof of ownership when issued on non-documented vessels.
Paperless Titles - When a lender secures an interest on a state titled boat, the certificate is usually held by the lender. When the loan is paid off, the lender will then endorse the title and forward it to the owner. Some states have now adopted a process where this is implemented electronically and issuance of a title certificate is withheld until the lender files a release. Although not widely prevalent for boats, such practice does exist in certain jurisdictions.
Operational Requirements - Operational requirements can vary considerably from state to state with regard to boat registration. As a general rule, boats over a certain size and those which are mechanically powered will become subject to registration. There are also a number of exemptions which may apply including documented boats, government owned vessels, and those designed for specialized usage.
Reciprocity Agreements - Residents must typically register their boat within a certain number of days after bringing it into their respective state. Non-residents have what is known as reciprocity or visitation privileges which affords them an exempt status for a certain number of days. In order to qualify however, the boat must usually be currently registered in another state. Most states will forego this requirement when a boat is Coast Guard documented or foreign registered, but this is not always the case.
Application Requirements - There is considerable disparity among state agencies when it comes the items required for registering or titling a boat. Some states, especially those which do not issue boat titles, may settle for a simple bill of sale as proof of ownership and nothing else. Others are very stringent and will demand a prior title, registration, or builder's statement. Rules also vary with respect to abandoned boats, foreclosures, and lien sales. Conditional or bonded registrations and titles may be available in some cases, but a court order is often the only solution where no other evidence is available. One thing in common with most states is a requirement that such jurisdiction will be the place of principal usage for the boat. Hull number inspections are also necessary in most cases when they are questionable. Citizenship or owner residency is not typically an issue when registering or titling a boat on the state level.
Registration Data - In states which issue boat titles, the registration certificates will usually reflect the same information as shown on the title. This typically includes the registered owner and any legal owners or secured parties. This may not always be the case however in non-title states as loan interests on non-documented boats are usually recorded via a Uniform Commercial Code filing. As for boat descriptions, the year model, make, overall length, type of usage, hull identification number, and other details are typically shown. A boat registration certificate will always show the expiration date whereas a title does not.
Taxes and Fees - Boat registrations are often used by the states for fee and tax collection purposes. These are accordingly collected whenever a boat is initially registered and whenever it comes up for renewal. Such costs will however vary considerably with each jurisdiction. Registration service fees are always required, but excise, use, and sales taxes can range from nothing to a nominal percentage of the boat's value. Although Coast Guard documented boats may become exempt from registration costs in some states, this rarely applies to tax assessments.
Errors & Omissions - Boat registration and title certificates are not immune from errors, omissions, and other types of deficiencies. These can occur due to typographical errors when entering the data, inadvertent misinformation, or by intentional design to defraud by an applicant. Governmental agencies will not therefore warrant, guarantee, or stand behind the information shown on boat registration or title certificates.
Registration Agencies - Many states administer boat registrations or titles through the same department that handles motor vehicles. Others may utilize their department of fish and game, natural resources, department of revenue, secretary of state, or other agencies. Boat titling in some states is also handled by a different department from that which administers registrations . Even though boat registration activities may have become centralized in many states, some will still use local county clerk offices or private businesses as sub-agencies. This is especially true for boat dealers and certain brokers who can register boats from their own transactions..
Registration Records - The federal government is very open with regard to vessel documentation records and ownership information. Public access to state boat registration and title records is however a completely different matter. Anti-disclosure laws are now in effect for most states with regard to both vehicle and boat ownership records. This has resulted from actions taken in the past which resulted in damage settlements from dissemination of such data. Boat records can now only be obtained upon written application in most cases and the requesting party must have due cause for needing such information.
Regulatory Changes - Changes in boat registration or titling regulations come often and quickly with each jurisdiction doing their own thing. It can even happen without prior notice as some unfortunate boaters have discovered. Although we endeavor to keep current with these issues, it is not always possible to reflect the very latest data on our web site. We therefore encourage our readers to always check with the appropriate agency before taking any actions based on the information contained herein.
Owners should be
aware that notifications must be filed upon the occurrence of certain
events on boats that are state titled or registered. Among these is a
requirement to submit a written report if the vessel has been sold,
transferred, or its physical status has changed.
Reports are also required in the event of any changes in address, abandonments, thefts, or destruction of the boat. The time period for such reporting varies by state, but is typically within 10 to 15 days. Registration reports do not of course, preclude any insurance, financing, and other operational reporting requirements.
Most states have a special forms for filing registration notifications which are typically referred to as "Report of Sale" or "Change of Registration". However, a written notification on the owner's letterhead will usually suffice if the boat is properly identified and circumstances are thoroughly described.
Although reporting regulations are not always enforced, there are some other common sense issues to consider. Major problems may arise If a seller fails to report the sale or transfer of the boat and a subsequent owner does not follow through in changing the registration. An injured party will look to the owner of record for restitution should the boat become involved in an accident or create any other liabilities such as unpaid repair bills and tax deficiencies. In such cases, the burden will be upon the recorded owner's shoulders to disclaim ownership of the boat at the time of such occurrences.
Please contact your local state boat registration agency with any specific questions or concerns about title or registration reporting requirements.
Prospective buyers and owners are often confronted with the issue of
whether to state title the vessel or acquire Coast Guard documentation. This is
of course, a foregone conclusion when a lender is insisting on a
preferred vessel mortgage. Although most states now have tried and true vessel
titling systems, there are still good reasons to document a vessel other
than to merely satisfy a marine lender. The
following are some of the reasons buyers may wish to consider
Coast Guard documentation:
1. Documentation may be a better alternative when a buyer resides in a state which does not issue a formal title. Although yearly registration certificates from non-title states can serve as proof of ownership or as quasi-titles, they are not bona fide title documents and may be more difficult to defend.
2. Documentation should be considered for vessels that will traverse foreign waters or those of another state. A Certificate of Documentation is more universally recognized as an instrument of undisputed ownership. In foreign waters, documented vessels also enjoy certain protections afforded under international law that apply to U.S. flagged vessels.
3. A documented vessel can enjoy certain sales or property tax advantages in some states and may even be exempt from yearly registration fees.
4. Within the boating community, documentation is viewed as a more prestigious method of titling. In the realm of national registry, a documented vessel joins the ranks of other luxury yachts and ships that carry the U.S. flag. In addition, documented vessels are not required to display state registration numbers on the vessel's exterior.
There are many reasons for titling a vessel either on the state level or with the federal government. However, in some cases it may simply come down to a matter of personal preference.
Resources ► Vessel Title Services
The UCC-1 filing that was for so many years a primary method for
recording vessel liens has now taken a back seat to state titling. Of
course, in those few remaining states that do not issue vessel titles,
this is still a viable alternative. Although a majority of marine
lenders no longer file these in titling states, some continue the
practice just as an extra precaution, or perhaps to cover accessories
that are not essential to the vessel. Blanket filings on a vessel
dealers inventory are also quite common.
One of the more convenient aspects of securing on a state title or through a preferred mortgage is that once filed, they require no further maintenance. This is not the case with UCC filings as they are usually periodic and must be renewed from time to time. On the positive side, many states have now converted to centralized UCC systems that eliminate the need for locating the appropriate county clerk. In addition, most states have adopted a universal or generic UCC-1 form that is much easier to record.
There is a common
perception that all vessels are simply titled with the appropriate state,
just like automobiles and recreational vehicles. However, the methods for
recording a vessel's ownership can vary widely depending on its size,
intended usage, and the waters on which it will navigate. Among the various
governmental agencies that regulate vessel titling, licensing, and
registration are the U.S. Coast Guard, individual states, U.S. territories,
counties, and foreign countries.
A typical vessel larger than 25 feet in length may have become subject to one, several, or perhaps all of these conditions during its lifetime. Smaller vessels are more likely to have been titled and registered in the same manner as a vehicle. However, there are still some differences on how boats are handled even on the state level. All of the states issue periodic registrations, but some do require or even provide vessel titling. Vessel registrations are also administered by different agencies depending on the state. In some cases, they are handled by a fish and game or natural resources department rather than the department of licensing or motor vehicles.
The manner in which an owner or prospective buyer elects to title or register the subject vessel can have a major impact with respect to taxes, security, and operations. Although there is no substitute for the advice of an attorney or professional accountant, you will find a great deal of information on these subjects right here in our web site.