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Probate Law for Boat Transfers

My father passed away last month, and I am working to get his affairs in order. He owned a 36 ft. sailing yacht that he purchased three years ago, but after his death I learned that title for the boat is still in the name of the previous owner. Unfortunately, when I tried to contact the previous owner I was informed by his family that he had also passed away last year. When my father bought the boat, he and the seller apparently worked out an arrangement to ’delay’ the transfer of title so the marina would not learn of the sale, and the boat could therefore stay in its her original slip. To complicate things further, the seller’s estate was never probated. His family has been very helpful, but it seems that I am now faced with trying to sell a boat where nobody is alive to sign a bill of sale. Do you have any suggestions?
I am continually amazed at the lengths people will go to get a slip these days. Many of these schemes have unpleasant consequences, and in this case the families have been burdened with the task of unraveling the mess.

The resolution to this problem will require the cooperation of the seller’s family, and depending on the value of the seller’s estate and whether the boat is Coast Guard documented, you may need to work with the family to probate the seller’s estate.

When an estate is probated, the court will appoint an executor to take charge of things, and to stand in the place of the deceased person to sign contracts and other documents. Even where a valid will was prepared, the executor will not automatically have the authority to sign papers unless and until that authorization is granted by a probate court. A probate is therefore necessary for all property transfers after death, unless an exception is available.

The most common exception to the probate requirement is where when the deceased person’’s property is held by a revocable family trust. In those cases, the trust papers will name a successor whose signature is effective upon the death of the original owner, without the need for probate. Unfortunately, the scenario described above did not involve a trust.

Where property is held by an individual, California law allows for transfer without probate if the total value of all the transferred property does not exceed $100,000. Under the procedures set forth in California Probate Code sections 13100 through 13116, the heirs of the deceased person will need to prepare an affidavit that describes the property and their relationship to the deceased, and they may also need to assume any liabilities that the deceased may have had to his or her creditors. The affidavit may then be delivered to the Coast Guard with a Bill of Sale to transfer a documented vessel. This procedure is usually not available if the value of the estate exceeds $100,000, and in that case probate may be the only option.

The transfer process is much easier if the boat is California registered rather than documented through the Coast Guard. Section 9916 of the California Vehicle Code allows for the deceased person’s heirs to transfer a state-registered vehicle or vessel through an affidavit procedure, regardless of the value of the boat. The Department of Motor Vehicles has a form for this purpose (DMV Form ’REG 5’) that may be downloaded through its website:

Regardless of the value of the boat, the transfer of a vessel without probate may be a complicated matter, from both a legal and a paperwork standpoint. Probate is a complex area of the law, and an attorney who specializes in probate and estate planning should be consulted. For help with the paperwork we recommend that the parties retain the services of a marine documentation specialist such as the Mary Conlin Co. in Newport Beach.

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