Vessel Research Handbook


Table of Contents

 1.  Introduction
          This Handbook
          Vessel Research
          Types of Research
          Research Methods

2.  Vessel Specifications
          Vessel Specifications
          Physical Inspection
          Year Designations
          Measurements
          Tonnage Data
          Construction Data
          Make and Model
          Hull Identification Numbers
          Registration Numbers
          Official Numbers
          Name and Hailing Port

3.  Historical Research
          Historical Discovery
          Prior Registrations
          Chain of Ownership
          Stolen Vessels
          Damaged Vessels
          Factory Recalls
          Boarding Inspections
              
4.  Titles & Registrations
          Titles & Registrations
          Bill of Lading
          Statement of Origin
          Builder’s Certification
          State Registration
          State Titling
          Coast Guard Documentation
          Foreign Registration
          Transient Ownership

5.  Ownership Validation
          Ownership Validation
          Individual Ownership
          Legal Entities
          Fictitious Trade Names
          Estates and Trusts
          Background Research

6.  Specialized Research
          Specialized Research
          Abandoned Vessels
          Salvaged Vessels
          Auctioned Vessels
          Foreclosed Vessels
          Governmental Forfeitures
          Court Awards
                   
7.  Ancillary Research
          Ancillary Research
          Outboard Motors
          Boat Trailers
          Dinghies & Tenders
          Other Attachments
          Commercial Licenses

8.  Research Tools
          Research Tools
          Public Databases
          Subscription Databases
          Record Vendors
          Governmental Agencies
          Record Vendors
          Professional Agents



1.  Introduction

          This Handbook  –  The Vessel Research Handbook contains information about vessel title research as written in basic terms for the layperson’s benefit. The subject matter is intended as a general overview and may not apply to all circumstances. A more in-depth study beyond the scope of this handbook may therefore be required for certain topics. These guidelines should however, prove helpful in illuminating various aspects of a given vessel’s title, lien, ownership, and historical status.
          While reading this material, please keep in mind that even with the utmost diligence there is no assurance you will identify every ownership interest, lien, encumbrance, or claim against the vessel. You should accordingly consult with an attorney regarding any concerns about the vessel’s title condition, the owner’s title representations, or title warranty issues.  
          
          Vessel Research  –  A complete and thorough title search is the cornerstone of any vessel transaction. It is the basis for identifying the vessel, its true owners, and any liens, encumbrances, or title deficiencies which may exist. All paperwork for recording subsequent ownership or security interests must coincide with such findings. The need for an accurate and defensible title is something that can not be overstated due to the unique characteristics of owning a vessel.
          There are also some important operational issues to consider with respect to a vessel’s title and registration certificates. An accurate description of the vessel and its true identification numbers must correspond precisely with those shown on such paperwork. Enforcement officials are becoming ever more stringent when it comes to inspecting vessels for these attributes. If the “ships papers” are questionable, an owner could face costly citations and the vessel may even become subject to seizure, impoundment, or forfeiture.
          Vessel research can become very time consuming and expensive depending of a vessel’s age, size, or background. Accordingly, the extent to which you should pursue every manner of action as described in this handbook must be weighed against its overall cost and effectiveness. Vessel title insurance or the advice of a maritime attorney may become your best solution when there are lingering doubts or concerns about the vessel’s title, ownership, or lien status.

          Types of Research  –  Vessel title research can be categorized into several basic elements which include, “vessel specifications”, “historical research”, “titles and registrations”, “liens and encumbrances”, “ownership verification”, “specialized research”, and “ancillary research”.  This handbook highlights the importance of each topic, describes the conditions under which certain types of research should be conducted, and suggests various methods of implementation. It also offers some suggestions about bringing these items all together into a cohesive report or summary that will portray an overall reflection of the vessel’s title, lien, and ownership status.

          Research Methods  –  There are various methods, tools, and resources available for conducting vessel research. This handbook will endeavor to prescribe the appropriate procedures for each respective type of lookup or discovery. Although most can be easily implemented by the layperson, there are certain methods that might best be left to an experienced professional. A reference to such circumstances will be made in the affected sections along with suggestions on where to find help. Whether you pursue this course of action will again depend on the investment you wish to make in obtaining optimal results.


2.  Vessel Specifications

          Vessel Specifications   –  An effective title search should begin with a gathering of information which is true to the vessel itself. This will encompass the vessel’s description, its dimensions, the factory hull number, and any federal, state, or foreign registration numbers that have been assigned to the vessel. In making these assessments, you should not rely solely on the vessel’s papers as they may contain typographical errors and other misinformation. The following topics cover some of the more important aspects of what to look for with regard to identifying the vessel’s actual specifications.

          Physical Inspection  –  A complete physical inspection of the vessel itself is one of the most important elements of a thorough title search. All of the title and registration certificates in the world will not help much if their descriptions do not coincide with the vessel itself. Given such significance, you might even consider doing this on your own. Although a good marine surveyor will typically inspect every inch of the vessel’s hull both inside and out for documentation, registration, and factory hull identification numbers, this is not always the case. When using a surveyor or some other inspection agent, be sure to insist on photographs or etchings of all such findings.

          Year Designations  –  Year designations can be confusing because there are three different year assignments to consider when it comes to vessels. The “model year” as designated by the builder should be incorporated into the hull number on most vessels built for domestic consumption after 1972. This often supersedes the actual “year built” by one or two years. The year built can be further broken down into two construction phases if the hull and final construction take place in different years. Most state level registrations will reflect the year model. On Coast Guard documented vessels however, the year cited will typically be that of the final construction. Please visit the “Hull Number Formats” link in the appendix section of this manual for more information about hull numbers.

          Measurements  –  As with year designations, there are also various ways of stating a vessel’s dimensions. The most common citations are length overall, the width overall or beam, and the draft as measured from the waterline to the bottom of the vessel. State level registrations typically deal with the length overall whereas the Coast Guard uses a length on deck measurement which excludes any overhangs such as a bowsprit and swim step. With respect to the depth, a measurement from the topmost part of the hull amidships to bottom of the vessel’s keel is used for documentation purposes.
          Factory brochures, specification sheets, and prior title or registration documents will serve as a starting point in determining measurement data. However, you or a professional marine surveyor should take independent measurements of the vessel itself. This will help to determine whether there have been any modifications and whether the vessel’s actual dimensions are consistent with its existing title or registration paperwork.

          Tonnage Data  –  Tonnage data for vessel research purposes relates mostly to Coast Guard vessel documentation. A vessel must measure at least five net tons in order to qualify for this privilege. Tonnage data also has a bearing on other documentation and certain operational requirements. With respect to documentation, the tonnage is a matter of internal volume rather than weight displacement. The gross and net tonnage is accordingly determined by certain measurement formulas. Vessels under twenty four feet in length will not usually qualify for documentation unless the beam or depth is extraordinary to its length.

          Construction Data –  The material used when constructing a vessel’s hull and its shape relate to the manner in which the vessel is described on title and registration documents. Construction materials are comprised of fiberglass, wood, steel, aluminum, and even concrete. Hull shapes may include such terms as displacement, sail, barge, runabout, catamaran, tri-hull, and houseboat. This type of data should be verified against all such records to make sure it is consistent. If there are tangible differences, the validity of the underlying records may be questionable and corrections may have to be initiated in the event of unintentional or typographical errors.

          Make and Model  –  The issues of who built a particular vessel and how it is referenced with with regard to its model designation are again subject to various interpretations. These are important elements of research because they contribute not only to the vessel’s identity, but perhaps its value. Although often interchanged, the term “make” typically pertains to the name of the builder or manufacturer and “model” is the name under which the vessel is marketed. Although model names are fairly definitive, there can be some ambiguity regarding the builder. This is due to the fact that the hull itself is sometimes built by a different company than that which completed the construction. In these cases, the completion phase usually usually prevails.

          Hull Identification Numbers  –  A manufacturer’s hull identification number is the underlying vessel identifier upon which all subsequent governmental registration and official numbers are based. It is therefore essential that such number, as it is truly affixed to the hull itself, is clearly identified. Given the importance of this matter, you may wish to inspect the vessel yourself or at least make sure the surveyor takes a photographs or rubbings during the inspection.
          A hull identification number should also be verified for proper formatting.  Effective with November 1, 1972, all vessels built for consumption within the United States are required to have a twelve place hull number which adheres to specific layout formulas. Such coding identifies the manufacturer, the serial or production number, the production year, and also the model year on later versions. Home made vessels or those built for foreign consumption and later imported may bear special hull numbers which have been assigned by the appropriate governmental registration agency. A chart showing the required hull number formats can be located in the appendix section of this handbook.
          Hull numbers that appear to have been altered or obliterated should raise serious concerns and may be a signal that the vessel is stolen. Questionable hull numbers can be researched by contacting the builder, a marine surveyor, a marine investigator, or any law enforcement official. These professionals will also know where to look for a hidden hull number which is required on all vessels built for domestic consumption after August 1, 1984.

          Registration Numbers  –  As part of your research, the vessel should be physically inspected for evidence of any state level registration numbers or tabs. These will provide a basis for additional ownership and lien research as described in another section of this handbook. Although some states exempt Coast Guard documented vessels from registration requirements, others may require this and periodic tabs or stickers must be affixed. Although the actual registration numbers should not be displayed on documented vessels, some owners are not aware of this and install them anyway.

          Official Numbers  –  When a vessel is documented with the U.S. Coast Guard, a special official documentation number is assigned which is unique to that particular vessel. This must be permanently affixed somewhere to an interior part of the hull itself or an integral bulkhead in such a manner that it is easily accessible in the event of an inspection. Official numbers are often engraved into something such as an engine stringer or installed via a plaque or plate. A physical inspection of vessels over 24′ should include a search for such number or any evidence that it once existed. In doing so, keep in mind that some owners may have either ignored or overlooked these requirements and gone undetected by enforcement officials.

          Name and Hailing Port  –  Although not always the case, a name and hailing port as shown on the vessel’s exterior often indicate that it has been previously documented with the U.S. Coast Guard or perhaps foreign registered. This is especially true when a hailing port is shown adjacent to the vessel’s name as this is a requirement for federal documentation. While names are not typically exclusive as a vessel identifier, they can provide a clue for more in-depth research and serve to confirm a known documentation or registry. One caution in this regard is the existence of name and hailing port which have been affixed by temporary or removable means. This could indicate a stolen vessel or one which has been operating under illegitimate conditions.


3.  Historical Research

         Historical Discovery  –  Historical research is not only an important component of vessel research, but a matter of great interest to most boat owners. The goal here is to portray the vessel’s background in terms of prior registrations, the chain of ownership, and any adverse conditions relative to the vessel’s integrity. This could include such incidents such as groundings, hurricane damage, collisions, or events involving casualties. These items may impact a vessel’s value and set the stage for potential claims or liabilities. Although a complete historical picture is not always attainable, it is best to gather as much background information as possible before proceeding with a more in-depth title search.

          Prior Registrations  –  Prior registrations are relevant because they help establish a chain of ownership and provide clues to any liens or encumbrances against the vessel. Registrations may include U.S. Coast Guard documentation, state level titling or registration, and foreign registry. Unfortunately, the existence of such recordings is not always evident and you will need to weigh the benefits of expending too much effort in this area.
          Historical research on federal level registries, including Cost Guard documentation, is relatively easy because “abstracts of title” or “transcripts of registry” are generally available to the general public. These show all ownership and recorded lien transactions involving the vessel during its active tenure. If the records do show any gaps in the chain of ownership or record continuity, you should try to determine how the vessel was otherwise registered during this period.
          State level research is an entirely different matter when it comes to historical records. Although some jurisdictions maintain inactive vessel records almost indefinitely, others discard such data after a certain period of time. In any event, there are currently no states that retain underlying abstracts of title showing recorded entries. Instead, their records are generally kept in microfiche files where you must access copies of the actual documents or transactions. Unfortunately, this is a time consuming process, may be expensive, and in most cases you will have to overcome very strict disclosure rules.

          Chain of Ownership  –  Identifying the complete chain of ownership for a vessel is one of the best ways of ensuring it is not stolen. It also provides clues as to where the vessel has been previously operated and perhaps the circumstances of its usage. However, establishing a complete chain of ownership can be difficult, if not impossible, to under some circumstances. If the vessel has been documented with the Coast Guard, its underlying abstract of title will often show a full chain of ownership all the way back to the builder. On the other hand, state agencies do not maintain abstracts and typically dispose of their records after a certain period of time. Microfiches showing copies of prior registration transactions may be available in some cases, but these are only obtainable by special order and it may take some time. This is another area of vessel research where you will need to weigh the benefits against the effort it may take to complete such endeavor.

          Stolen Vessels  –  The most obvious method of detecting a stolen vessel is to check the hull for identification number alterations and to validate that it is properly formatted. Researching the complete chain of ownership will also help verify a current owner’s rightful possession. There are some searchable resources for checking stolen vessels, but these may not always be up to date or fully conclusive. Resources for checking stolen vessels are available in our Vessel Record Search service.

          Damaged Vessels  –  Owners are required by law to file reports when their vessel has been involved in substantial collision events or those related to casualties. Law enforcement officials must also record any such occurrences in which they have become involved. Unfortunately, this is another area of vessel research where resources are sorely lacking. This kind of information is available to the public, but it is fragmented, inconclusive, and vessel identification numbers are often posted inaccurately. The Coast Guard’s “Boating Accident and Reporting Database” and its “Marine Casualty and Pollution Database” are the two of the most likely places to look. Its PSIX database also has an option for researching vessel inspections. These can be accessed through our Vessel Record Search service.

          Factory Recalls  –  As part of the vessel research process, you will want to identify any factory recalls involving your particular vessel or other similar models. As good fortune will have it, this type of information is readily available to the public and easily accessible. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Division maintains a listing of factory recalls which covers both specific vessels and model designations in general. Such information can be located by visiting the “Database Page” page of our web site.

          Boarding Inspections  –  Boarding inspection reports can provide valuable clues as to a vessel’s operational background and perhaps identify some potential liabilities. This type of information is not readily available on the state level, but the U.S. Coast Guard’s PSIX database does contain such reports. Although oriented mostly toward larger commercial vessels, it does include some information on pleasure craft. Keep in mind when using this resource that the usual caveats apply with respect accuracy and conclusiveness.


4.  Titles & Registrations

          Titles & Registrations  –  Title and registration documents serve as tangible evidence of a vessel’s ownership and are therefore the basis of all subsequent transactions. Such items include bills of lading, manufacturer’s statements of origin, builder’s certifications, state titles, state registrations, certificates of U.S. Coast Guard documentation, and the foreign equivalent of such documents.
          Although title and registration certificates go a long way when it comes to proving ownership, they are subject to falsifications and can be disputed. Accordingly, all such documents should be compared to the vessel’s true specifications and any historical evidence of the vessel’s background. Furthermore, title and registration certificates are not conclusive with regard to the existence of liens or claims. As you will see in the following sections, there are some special considerations that must be given to vessels with respect to hidden or undisclosed liens.
         
          Bill of Lading  –  A bill of lading is the receipt a carrier gives to a shipper for transported goods.  This evidences the contract between the parties and gives the carrier rights of possession. Although not typically viewed as a title document, it can serve as an interim document of ownership among the shipper, carrier, and recipient. This item can prove instrumental when tracking ownership of a transported vessel.

          Statement of Origin  –  The manufacturer’s statement of origin, which is also known as an “MSO”, serves as an initial title document and shows the vessel’s first owner other than the factory. These are typically used when tilting or registering a vessel on the state level for the first time. There is no search to be performed on this document other than to perhaps contacting the factory to verify it’s authenticity. It is however, very important to compare the hull identification number as shown on the certificate with that which is actually affixed to the vessel. It is not unusual for the issuer to make typographical errors when completing the certificate and this will permeate throughout all subsequent title documents if not corrected. The vessel’s other specifications as shown on the certificate should also be checked for accuracy. If the statement of origin is outdated by more than a year or two, a question should arise as to whether the vessel has been subsequently titled or registered with a governmental agency.

          Builder’s Certification  –  The builder’s certification serves the same function as a manufacturer’s statement of origin in that it is also an initial title document. However, this is designed to fulfill the Coast Guard’s requirements for establishing evidence of build. Accordingly, most larger vessels enter into documentation on such basis.
          Although the same research factors should be implemented as those for a statement of origin, there is one important caveat. You should keep in mind that two distinct initial title documents may exist for a particular vessel, especially if it is of the size where it can be documented. This means that one or the other may still be in circulation and could potentially be used for fraudulent purposes.

          State Registration  –  State level research begins with a discovery process based on jurisdictions where the vessel is known to have been previously operated or stored on a non-transitory basis. A discovery search should also be conducted in the state where it will be next registered. This will prevent any surprises should a subsequent application conflict with any existing records. State level research should be also conducted on Coast Guard documented vessels in those states that require registration of documented vessels.
          If the registration status is unknown, it will be necessary to contact the respective state agency for such information. Although most jurisdictions employ strict disclosure rules, they will at least verify whether a hull identification number exists in their database. You may then need the owner’s written authorization in order to obtain more in-depth information. This type of research is also addressed in the “Liens & Encumbrances” section of this handbook. It should be noted that on vessels built prior to 1975 with short or no hull numbers, a Coast Guard documentation official number may have been used as a substitution.

          State Titling –  Periodic vessel registration certificates are issued by every state, but this is not always the case with respect to title certificates. There are certain jurisdictions, which are classified as “registration only” states, where vessel titles are not available. If a vessel is documented with the U.S. Coast Guard, it can be registered on the state level if so required. However federal law prohibits the states from issuing title certificates under these circumstances. Unfortunately, state titles are often issued on documented vessels where the issuing agency is unaware of such status.
          In states that do issue titles, the underlying records are typically merged with those of the registrations. Accordingly, the discovery process for state titling the same as for registrations. You should be aware however, that a handful of states do issue vessel title and boat registration certificates from different agencies. In these cases separate searches will be necessary. You can visit the “Boat Registration Summary” section of our “Database Page” for this kind of information.

          Coast Guard Documentation  –  It is a reasonably safe assumption that vessels under 24 feet in length have never been documented with the U.S. Coast Guard. It would take an unusually wide and deep vessel to otherwise qualify. In cases where a document has been issued, the vessel would have been assigned an official number which is retained in a permanent database. This applies even though the documentation may have been removed or deleted from the active roles. Unless you are familiar with the vessel’s background, a discovery search should be made to see whether a prior documentation record exists.
          Resources for conducting “preliminary” discovery searches on documented vessels can be found by following the “Vessel Research Tools” link in the Appendix section of this handbook. Here you can use the factory hull number, vessel name, and perhaps the owner’s name to look for a cross reference. If these prove negative, you should contact the National Vessel Documentation Center for a first hand check of their records. If an official documentation number is detected, it will be necessary to order an Abstract of Title for conclusive information about the last owner of record and any liens or encumbrances that may still be outstanding. Further details about abstracts of title are on the www.boat-abstract.com website.
         
          Foreign Registration  –  Foreign countries maintain federal and provincial level vessel registrations which are typically similar to those of our state and Coast Guard agencies. Their provincial or state level registrations may not be as organized or systematic as ours, but federal level registries are for the most part almost identical. The main difference will be that of terminology where a certificate of documentation may be called a “Book” and the abstract of title may be called a “Transcript of Registry” in certain countries.
          The discovery process for foreign countries is similar to that of researching a domestically titled or registered vessel. However, an interpreter may be required in those situations where such records are not available in English. In this case, a professional service may offer a better alternative than trying to locate and deal with the appropriate registration agency yourself. Our “Database Page” provides some resources for foreign registry searches and our “Resources Page” has a listing of foreign agencies. Other resources can be found by using your favorite internet search browser.

          Transient Ownership  –  Transient ownership occurs where an owner of record has transferred or released ownership and the new owner’s interest has not yet been recorded. In many situations, especially those involving trade-ins, the new owner merely holds on to the prior title documents or transfer instruments pending a subsequent sale or transfer. This can sometimes result in a chain of unrecorded ownership through several intermediate parties.
          In these cases it is especially important to verify that the title was properly released and any instruments of transfer were properly executed. Any prior title documents should, of course, be researched and verified in their own right. In addition to ensuring the current owner has rightful title to the vessel, all transfer documents should be checked to make sure they will comply with subsequent recording requirements. The Coast Guard will not accept instruments of transfer if they do not have special citations and some states may require ownership assignments to be implemented on the title certificate itself.


Bonus:  Liens & Encumbrances

          Liens & Encumbrances   –  Liens and encumbrances can be categorized as those which are recorded, non-recorded, or hidden.  In order to identify recorded liens you will need to know where to look with respect to the appropriate state, federal, and foreign recording agencies. Non-recorded liens are those which have been disclosed or are obvious, but not formally recorded. Hidden liens include claims, liabilities, and obligations against a vessel that one could not reasonably identify. It should be noted that the term “liens” typically refers to involuntary claims and “encumbrances” are contractual arrangements which have been granted by the vessel’s owner. Both may be referred to as “liens” throughout this handbook for the sake of brevity. The following topics will address various types of liens in more detail and offer some suggestions on how they can be detected.

          Uniform Commercial Code  –  Uniform Commercial Code financing statements are commonly known as UCC filings and are used to perfect security interests in vessels which are not Coast Guard documented or state titled. These filings are typically recorded and maintained on the state level by a central agency such as the Secretary of State. However, in some jurisdictions they are recorded at the county level. UCC recordings typically expire after five years unless renewed by the lender.
           UCC searches should be conducted in the jurisdiction where the vessel is registered and where it is located or where the owner resides if different. In most cases, the UCC filings will be indexed under an owner’s name as shown on the vessel’s corresponding state registration certificate. If the vessel is not currently registered, you should search under the the last owner of record, the current owner, and any interim owners. UCC research can be implemented online via the internet or by using a public record service agency.

          State Registration Liens  –  In researching state registration records for liens, you should keep in mind that certain jurisdictions do not issue corresponding title certificates. If the vessel is registered only and neither titled or Coast Guard documented, you will need to conduct a Uniform Commercial Code search. If a state title has been issued, any secured liens will typically be shown on the title certificate itself and/or in the respective titling agency’s records. It is noteworthy that tax liens may not show up on the title itself in some states, but the underlying records will be flagged with such restrictions. In most cases, an encumbered title certificate is sent to the secured party pending retirement of the underlying debt. However, this is not always the rule as some states issue encumbered titles directly to the registered owner with a memorandum of lien going to the secured party. You should also be aware that a lien free title certificate which is still in circulation may have been superseded with one that is encumbered.
          It is always a good practice to verify any title or registration information directly with the respective governmental agency rather than accepting it at face value. Unfortunately this is sometimes easier said than done, given that most states employ strict disclosure rules. Most agencies will confirm the details of a registration or title certificate if you have in hand. You will otherwise need to submit a written request to obtain an up-to-date record print-out. It may be necessary to contact the recording agency for instructions in this regard as each has their own set of disclosure rules and procedures.

          Coast Guard Documentation Liens  –  The Coast Guard maintains records indefinitely on every vessel that has ever become documented. Even though an owner may have allowed the documentation to expire, it will remain in the active roles until all outstanding mortgages have been discharged. Claims of lien will reside on the abstract, even if the documentation has been deleted. It is therefore very important to inspect the vessel’s underlying abstract of title for such possibilities. Information and services for ordering or interpreting Coast Guard abstracts of title can be found on the “Federal” and “Services” pages of our web site.

         Government Liens  –  Tax liens and other claims by governmental agencies are difficult to detect unless recorded against a vessel’s title, documentation, or perhaps through a UCC recording. Of course, an obvious clue would be whether the vessel has been impounded, is chained to its mooring, or has a lien notification posted somewhere on its exterior. There are public record search vendors which offer governmental lien searches, but their reports are not always accurate or fully conclusive. As a matter of absolute certainty, it would be a matter of contacting every governmental agency that could possibly have had dealings with the vessel or its owner. As this is not generally feasible, you may be relying the owner’s statement of title warranty or perhaps title insurance for protections in this regard. The advice of an attorney should be considered if you have any such concerns.

          Foreign Liens  –  As a general rule, foreign registration agencies deal with lien recordings in the same fashion as those here in the United States. Mortgages can be filed against foreign vessels on the federal level and some local or provincial agencies facilitate recordings which are similar to our Uniform Commercial Code filings. Foreign research can be a hit or miss proposition unless you are reasonably familiar with the respective country’s rules and regulations. You should accordingly consider a qualified professional service agency or seek legal assistance when there is evidence the vessel has been foreign registered.

          Non-Recorded Liens  –  Liens do not have to become recorded in order to attain validity. The recording process merely establishes certain priorities among creditors and notifies the public of such circumstances. Although non-recorded liens are similar in stature to hidden liens, they differ when you have first hand knowledge or should be reasonably aware of their existence. This in turn makes a non-recorded lien more difficult to avoid and may place more weight on its priority or ranking.

          Hidden Liens  –  There are precepts in maritime law where liens, claims, and liabilities can become attached to the vessel itself and pass through to subsequent owners. This applies to hidden or undisclosed liens as well as those which are identifiable and duly recorded. Hidden liens are typically related to obligations created due to a vessel’s operations such as fuel, moorage, services, and repairs. However, prior damages, casualties, or infractions can also create an ongoing liability.
          Although the discovery process for hidden liens may never be conclusive, there are things you can do to help eliminate some of the possibilities. In doing so, you should gather as much information about the vessel’s operational history as possible and initiate your own direct inquiries into any circumstances which may have given rise to hidden liens, claims, or liabilities. In the end, you may need to look to title insurance or the advice of an attorney for protections in this regard.


5.  Ownership Validation

          Ownership Validation  –  Ownership validation can be a critical aspect of vessel research, especially in situations where historical information is lacking. This type of research involves personal background discovery on the owner with respect to such party’s authority, credibility, and financial wherewithal. Statements of title warranty and other representations will not be of much help if the owner is nowhere to found should problems arise. In the case of a legal entity, trust, or estate, you will also need to identify those representatives who posses the right to conduct transactions involving the vessel.

          Individual Ownership  –  Research for a sole individual is basically a matter of obtaining sufficient personal identification and making sure this information matches up with the underlying title records or ownership documents. However, when ownership is held by multiple individuals there is a matter verifying the type or method of ownership. Tenants in common, joint tenants, community property, and tenants by the entirety are just some of the possibilities. In most cases this will be stated on the underlying title documents or records. The issues of multiple ownership become most relevant in cases where some, but not all, of the parties wish to conduct transactions involving the vessel.

          Legal Entities  –  Legal entities such as corporations, associations, partnerships, and Limited Liability Companies must typically operate within the constraints of their operating agreements or charters. They must also be appropriately registered and empowered by the jurisdiction in which formed. If such conditions are not present, they may not have the capacity to hold ownership or effect transactions involving the vessel. There is also a matter of identifying those persons who are authorized to conduct business on behalf of the entity.
          In conducting research on an entity, the first step should be that of confirming whether it has the rightful capacity to hold ownership in personal property or to conduct any such transactions. This can be determined by checking with the state in which formed to verify whether it is in good standing with respect to licensing or registration. If this type of information does not reveal those individuals who have the authority to conduct transactions, it may be necessary to inspect the entity’s operating agreement or charter.

          Fictitious Trade Names  –  Although the Coast Guard does not typically allow vessels to become documented under a fictitious trade name, there are cases where this inadvertently happens. The trade name is usually shown as a “d/b/a” designation following the entity’s true legal name. Trade names are a different story on state level registrations, as most agencies will allow ownership to be stated in such manner. In any event, the  true legal owner of a trade name should be identified and validated along with the trade name itself. Research in this area can be implemented in the same manner as that of a legal entity.

          Estates and Trusts  –  An estate or trust is not usually viewed as a entity in itself. Personal property such as a vessel is accordingly held in the name of the respective trustees or representatives. In validating ownership under these circumstances, the existence of the estate or trust should be confirmed by reviewing the legal documents under which such arrangements were created. This should also disclose the name or names of the parties who are authorized to hold title or implement transactions.

          Background Research  –  Background research is comparatively simple when dealing with individuals. However, it can become more challenging where you are dealing with complex entities or foreign owners. Domestic research is readily available from online public record vendors which can be found by searching the internet. In dealing with more complex methods of ownership, you may wish to seek the direct assistance of a professional research service or an attorney. The “Resources” page of our web site offers links to public record vendors, service agencies, and attorneys.


6.  Specialized Research

          Specialized Research  –  Specialized research may be warranted where a title or ownership is being held or transferred as a result of exceptional or non-typical circumstances. These include situations where a vessel has been abandoned, salvaged, auctioned, foreclosed, forfeited, or awarded by a court of law. In most of these cases, ownership will have been transferred pursuant federal or state laws, court awards, or by governmental edict. If such actions are not properly implemented and documented, it may difficult if not impossible to formally record a change of ownership.

          Abandoned Vessels  –  Passage of title for an abandonment usually occurs when a marina operator or property manager disposes of a vessel which was abandoned on public or private property. This is typically done in accordance with state or local statutes and does not extinguish any other claims or liens which may exist against the vessel. Transfers of title can be recorded when evidence is provided that implementation of the appropriate statute was properly followed and all previously recorded liens have been discharged.
         In addition to the usual research, a close inspection of the applicable statutes should be conducted along with any evidence that they were adhered to in the proper manner. The services of a lawyer may appropriate under these conditions as this is usually a matter of legal interpretation.

          Salvaged Vessels  –  Salvaged vessels are typically those which have been cast off by the owner or an insurance company as having been damaged or destroyed beyond their value. Although usually dismantled or scrapped, such vessels are sometimes restored and placed back into operation. Salvaged vessels should not be confused with those which have been constructed from the ground up with salvaged parts of other vessels.
          When dealing with salvaged vessels, an effort should be made to ensure there is a complete nexus showing any passages of ownership along with the necessary paperwork to reinstate the title or registration. This includes instruments of transfer from the owner or insurance company. The usual types of vessel research should also be implemented with respect to prior titles and registrations.

          Auctioned Vessels  –  Auctioned vessels are usually sold pursuant a loan foreclosure or some type of governmental forfeiture. However,  vessels can also be voluntarily auctioned by the owner or perhaps sold as a result of court actions. Some of the more common auctions are implemented as the result of a U.S. Marshall’s or Sherriff’s sale. Caution should be exercised in regard to prior liens as they are not always extinguished under these circumstances. Liens are typically vacated only when a vessel is sold in Admiralty by a U.S. Marshall while acting under the supervision of a federal court. 
          A special effort should be made with respect to researching this type of transaction because auction companies are often unfamiliar with the requirements for passage of title. Their primary job is to sell the vessel and hand over whatever paperwork they have been given. In addition to the usual research, all titling paperwork should be pre-inspected and a basis for the auction should be clearly established.

          Foreclosed Vessels  –  There are two very different manners under which foreclosures can take place with respect to vessels. In some cases, the process is handled through the court system and sold by a Sheriff or Marshall. On the other hand, a vessel may repossessed and sold through a non-judicial or “do-it-yourself” process in accordance with state laws. Whether this extinguishes all prior liens or encumbrances depends on the type of foreclosure.
          Although court supervised foreclosures are reasonably straight forward, the resulting paperwork is sometimes insufficient to satisfy recording requirements. The same can be said of non-judicial foreclosures, especially those involving Coast Guard documented vessels. In cases where the foreclosure has been implemented by a well established lender or the courts, any deficient paperwork can usually be corrected. When dealing with an unknown forecloser, you should take a close look at the transfer documents and perhaps have them reviewed by an attorney. The usual research should be  also be conducted on any prior title or registration documents.

          Governmental Forfeitures  –  Governmental agencies often sell or award vessels which have been forfeited by their owners as a result of criminal violations or for collection purposes. Such sales are usually implemented through public auctions. Prior liens and encumbrances may be extinguished under governmental forfeitures, but this is not always the case. Governmental agencies are also notorious for not providing the appropriate paperwork necessary to transfer a title or registration.
          In dealing with vessels that are being transferred pursuant a governmental forfeiture, you should carefully inspect the transfer paperwork to make sure it is sufficient for re-titling purposes and be clear as to whether it is sold free of prior liens. The usual methods of research should also be implemented on any prior title or registration records.

          Court Awards  –  Ownership interests in vessels can be passed by the courts for a number of reasons. Other than foreclosures, those involving divorce actions are probably the most common. Court awards are typically evidenced by a written order and signed by the court’s clerk. Unless specifically ordered by the court, these types of actions do not typically extinguish prior liens and encumbrances. Court awards are also frequently deficient when it comes to a proper description of the vessel or fully articulated conditions of the award.
          In addition to a careful inspection of the court documents, the usual types of vessel research should be implemented. Under these circumstances, the services of an attorney may be prudent if you are unsure of the meaning, scope, and intent of a court order.


7.  Ancillary Research

           Ancillary Research  –  In addition to researching the master vessel itself, there may be attachments, dinghies, and other equipment that require research in their own right. However, it is sometimes a fine line between what is considered an integral part of the vessel and items or appurtenances which can be titled and encumbered as separate items. This section will address some of those items that can or should be considered with respect to ancillary research.

          Outboard Motors  –  As removable objects, outboard motors are typically handled as items of personal property in their own right. Most have a unique serial number and may even be titled or registered separately from the vessel depending on the state in which located. Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of ways in which recording agencies deal with outboard motors. These range from nothing at all to the issuance of separate titles and registrations. Certain jurisdictions may also list an outboard motor on the respective vessel’s registration record.
          In those few states that do register or title outboard motors, the research would usually be conducted with the same agency and in the same manner as a vessel. In the absence of an actual title, the Uniform Commercial Code search would be prudent. The “Boat Registration Summary” section of the “State” page on our web site contains a state-by-state listing of outboard titling or registration requirements.

          Boat Trailers  –  Most states title and register boat trailers in the same manner as vehicles. However, the trailer’s size and weight may be a factor in whether it qualifies. In those states where trailer registration applies, the research should be conducted with the same agency that administers vehicles. If a trailer is not titled, a Uniform Commercial Code search would be the appropriate method for researching liens and encumbrances. The “Boat Registration Summary” section of the “State” page on our web site contains a state-by-state listing of boat trailer titling or registration requirements.

          Dinghies & Tenders  –  Dinghies and tenders are almost always dealt with as stand alone vessels. Given their typically small size they may not however, qualify for titling or registration depending on the jurisdiction in which located. Certain states also have specific exemption rules for dinghies and tenders. In cases where such vessel is not titled, a Uniform Commercial Code search would be the appropriate method for researching liens and encumbrances. The “Boat Registration Summary” section of the “State” page on our web site contains a state-by-state listing of dinghy and tender titling or registration requirements.

          Other Attachments  –  Attachments to a vessel such as electronics, gear, and tackle can be viewed as separate items of personal property. This is especially true if they are removable or easy to detach. Accordingly, a Uniform Commercial Code search may be appropriate on high value items that are not specifically identified as an integral part of the vessel.

          Commercial Licenses  –  Commercial licenses such as those which grant fishing rights are often of great value. Although not an integral part of the vessel itself, they are frequently included in related financing or sales transactions. Accordingly, research with the issuing agency should be conducted to make sure there are no separate liens or attachments. A Uniform Commercial Code search may also be prudent, even though licenses are not particularly viewed as personal property.


8.  Research Tools

          Research Tools  –  This handbook has thus far encompassed different types of vessel research, why they are necessary, and where to look. This section will describe some of the tools or methods by which you can access various recordings and historical information. Finding the best resources can be the most challenging part of your endeavor, as governmental agencies are very protective of both personal and vessel recording information. Public access to governmental databases is accordingly limited and even when such data is available it is severely restricted. There are a number of private service vendors that also provide this kind of data, but they are subject to the same limitations.

          Public Databases  –  Public databases include those which are freely available to the public and are typically found online via the internet. They are serviced and maintained by federal or state governmental agencies and those of foreign countries. The “Database Page” of our web site has an extensive collection of such resources and they can also be found by utilizing your favorite internet search browser.
          The most important thing to keep in mind when using online resources, whether public or private, is that they are not conclusive, are subject to errors, and may not always be current. At best, this type of data should be treated as tenuous or preliminary. The only way you can be assured of having the most conclusive and up-to-date information is by making direct contact with the respective governmental recording agency. It is also a good idea to get the data results in writing as verbal information is subject to miscommunications.

          Subscription Databases  –  There are a number of vessel databases offered on non-governmental web sites which are available via a paid subscription. In some cases, these can offer information that is not otherwise available to the general public. This is especially true with regard to mailing lists. However they are also limited by governmental restrictions and are not typically conclusive, always up-to-date, or free of errors. You may also pay a hefty fee that is not always justified with the value received. In fact, subscription databases are for the most part comprised of public databases with some added bells and whistles. You should be particularly careful about about sales pitches or gimmicks which may lead you to believe their services are a cure-all for your vessel research needs.

          Governmental Agencies  –  It would seem obvious that the most up-do-date and accurate vessel research data should come directly from the respective governmental recording agency. However, this can be challenging given the typical bureaucratic channels that must be navigated in getting to the right department or person. Although governmental interfacing via the internet has come a long way, there are still many shortcomings associated with online services. Governmental recording agencies can be located through our web site or your favorite web search browser.

          Record Vendors  –  Record search companies abound on the internet and can be helpful in some cases. However, they are often expensive and the services may fall short of your expectations. Private enterprises are subject to the same disclosure restrictions as those for the general public. In fact, the information provided by some vendors may even be more outdated than that which can be found via direct public access. Again, the best way to obtain current and accurate information is to make direct contact the respective governmental titling or registration agency.

          Professional Agents  –  Professional documentation or vessel titling agents are naturally more familiar with the various aspects of vessel research. Their services may be a costly alternative, but are certainly viable if you are not inclined to conduct your own research. Of course, you will need to ensure that your chosen agent has ample experience and good credentials. In any event, you should be aware that documentation agents do not typically warrant or guarantee titles, will not stand behind the results, and are not a substitute for title insurance. Professional assistance can be obtained from our web site or by utilizing your favorite web browser;.



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