State Boat Registration Basics

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State Boat Registration Basics

What you should know about state boat registration and titling.


Visit our sister website at BoatWiki.com for more databases, resources, and guidelines.

State boat registration is a process by which domestic and territorial agencies grant operational privileges for various types of watercraft within their jurisdictions. In addition to the assessment of related fees and taxes, it may include the issuance of a title certificate. Anyone looking to check on the ownership and lien status of a state registered boat should become familiar with these requirements. This website will provide all the necessary resources and guidelines to accomplish such task for concerned parties, industry professionals, and the boating community in general.

One of the first things to keep in mind when dealing with boat registrations is the lack of conformity in how they are administered from state to state. Although boat numbering and decal placement rules have been standardized nationwide, there is a great deal of diversity in most other requirements. This is compounded by the fact that certain states do not issue boat title certificates and their thresholds for proving ownership may be less than assuring. Registration agencies may also differ widely including Motor Vehicle Divisions, Departments of Fish and Game, or Departments of Revenue.

Another source of confusion is the functional difference between boat title and registration certificates. In most cases these are similar to what one would find in the automobile industry. The title certificate is a one time issue unless damaged, mutilated, or lost and thereby necessitating a replacement. Registrations on the other hand are periodic, renewable, and must be carried on board the vessel at all times during operation. There are however a handful of states which do not offer boat title certificates. In these cases, the registration may accordingly serve as proof of ownership unless the vessel is USCG documented. Registrations, titles, and documentations have major implications with regard to how liens, legal owners, and other encumbrances are recorded.

There are also many questions with regard to where state boat registration ends and Coast Guard vessel documentation begins. Although the states are prohibited from issuing titles on documented vessels, they are allowed to impose registration laws. Unfortunately, there is not much by way of interagency coordination and state titles are sometimes improperly maintained when a boat becomes documented. This creates conflicts related to declarations of ownership, vessel details, and identification numbers. On the other hand, these issues will not matter anyway on boats under approximately twenty-four feet in length as they would not likely qualify for documentation in the first place.

Finally, there are matters of errors and omissions to contend with when data is stated incorrectly on applications or misread into the systems. Hull identification numbers are of particular concern because they are often difficult to decipher from the hull itself and there are even cases where the factory statements of origin contain typographical errors. This highlights the importance of close visual inspections or professional surveys when it comes to comparing registration data to that which is affixed to the vessel.

The degree of emphasis placed on these factors may of course depend on the boat's value and one's confidence in the owner's ability or willingness to make good on any representations of title. There is no such thing as title insurance in the marine industry, therefore it is incumbent on the owner to follow through on any guarantees or needed corrections in conveying a free and clear title. Given the complexities of tracking down all the necessary information, especially on older boats, it may justify the enlistment of a boat titling expert when conducting any form of title research on state registered boats.

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