What you should know about registering a boat on the state level.
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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 taxes.
State Titling vs. Registration
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
There is a 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.
In states that 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 and Omission
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.
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.
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.
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.
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2/17/2022 - Page initiated by Team BoatWiki.