The debtor has chosen to hide his beloved boat to avoid having to relinquish it or sell it to pay off debts. Or he decides to liquidate some cash by purchasing a boat and storing it out of sight from his creditors.
There is no nationwide vessel identification system for boats (there are plans to complete one in the future, but launch is some way). This means that there is no central database permitting a search of all state title and boat registration information. A state-by-state search is therefore the only option.
Boat registrations usually come up during property ownership database searches. But confirming accuracy is labor intensive and highly dependent on where the debtor lives, what information about the vessel is available and possibly even on the size of the vessel. Like cars, boats usually have to be registered with the state, though the department that handles the registration varies. In some states, the department of motor vehicles oversees boat registrations, but in others it may be the parks division, the wildlife or the fish-and-game department.
Some states allow searches of their registration databases using the owner’s name or personal identification information. Other state search engines require information specific to the boat in question, like the boat’s vehicle identification number (VIN) or hull identification number (HIN). These databases may help confirm whether a known boat is still in the debtor’s possession, but make it nearly impossible to determine whether a boat is owned at all. And other states don’t provide access to any boat ownership databases at all.
When the state databases are less than helpful, there are a few other options, though they are only useful if the boat in question weighs five net tons or greater. The U.S. Coast Guard’s vessel documentation division provides an abstract of title for a vessel documenting all bills of sale, mortgages and notices of claim of lien filed and recorded by the Coast Guard. This information is crucial to an asset search, but the database is limited to vessels that pass the five net tons test and whose owners are U.S. citizens. Complicating the search are the Coast Guard’s search parameters: Vessels can only be searched using their HIN or official Coast Guard-assigned six or seven digit number.
Luckily, if a vessel is heavy enough and documented by the Coast Guard, it can also be tracked via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office (NOAA) of Science and Technology, though this requires knowing the vessel’s name. Many of the search records provide detailed owner information.
If tracking down the boat itself is a challenge, then other searches may provide circumstantial evidence to bolster allegations that the debtor owns a boat. For instance, many municipalities have wait lists to grant people mooring permission, and many of the lists can be searched by last name. Or a review of the debtor’s financial records may prove helpful. A home run would be a record of payments to a marina. Also helpful might be charges to a stoarge facility that houses boats, or larger than average fuel charges.
If the debtor has any ties abroad, he may have chosen to have the boat stored out of the country. If he sailed it abroad himself, look for any evidence of one-way travel back to the U.S. Otherwise, he might have hired someone to transport the boat for him. Look for any payments to people or companies that may have experience handling these sort of transactions, or unexplained large cash withdrawls that may have been used to cover the fees and costs for the delivery.