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  • Writer's pictureSarah K. Lewis

Estate Planning for Boats: Are Boats Probate Assets?

Happy Memorial Day weekend! As you kick off the boating season in Northeast Ohio, think about what you can do to protect your boat for your family to enjoy for years to come.

As a default rule, boats are probate assets and must go through the probate court’s estate administration process before the family can sell them or take title. Probate can take months or sometimes even years to finish, and in the meantime, the boat could be left to sit without a new owner and not receive the care and maintenance it needs to prevent disrepair.

There are a few options for keeping a boat within the family or selling it without the need for probate court:

Transfer on Death Designation on Boat’s Title (“TOD”)

One way to avoid probate of a boat is to include a transfer on death (“TOD”) designation on the boat’s title. To obtain a TOD, the owner of the boat works with their county title office to name a beneficiary who will take title to the boat after the owner’s death.

A TOD for a boat is often a good option for single people. While the owner is alive, the boat is solely in the owner’s name, so the owner has full control over the boat and need not worry that a co-owner’s potential creditors could impact the boat. After the owner dies, their TOD beneficiary becomes the owner of the boat by completing paperwork and paying a fee at the county title office.

Be aware that a TOD only works if the boat has a title. Not every boat in Ohio has a title. For example, canoes and kayaks typically do not have titles. Additionally, boats less than fourteen feet long that either have no motor or have a motor less than ten horsepower generally do not have titles either. There are some additional categories of boats that do not have titles under Ohio law and therefore could not have a TOD designation.

Joint With Right of Survivorship Title (“WROS”)

Another way to avoid probate of a boat is to use a joint with right of survivorship or “WROS” title. With a WROS title, two people own a boat jointly while they are both alive. When one owner of the boat passes away, the second owner becomes the sole owner of the boat. A WROS title is only available for boats that have titles. It is often a good option for married couples.

Let’s use an example to illustrate when a WROS title can be useful. Imagine that two people own a boat and have a WROS title that lists the owners as: “John Smith and Jackie Jones WROS.” In our example, imagine that John Smith dies before Jackie Jones. After John’s death, Jackie becomes the sole owner of the boat without going through the probate court. Jackie would complete the paperwork and pay a fee at the county title office to transfer the title into her name.

A WROS title can be a great estate planning tool – in the right circumstances. A WROS title often makes sense for married couples. In our example, let’s say that John and Jackie were married and that John died before Jackie. Because of the WROS title, Jackie would not need to wait for probate court, but rather could keep the boat for her own use, sell it, give it to another family member, add a new joint owner to the title, or do whatever she pleased with the boat as the sole owner.

A WROS title may not make sense for siblings or friends who share a boat. Now let’s change the example and imagine that John Smith and Jackie Jones were siblings and both John and Jackie each have one daughter. If John died before Jackie and John had wanted to leave his share of the boat to his daughter, a WROS title is not the appropriate tool. With the WROS title, John’s share of the boat would pass to Jackie instead of to his own daughter.

Transfer to Surviving Spouse

In an ideal world, boat owners would use a WROS title, TOD designation, or another probate avoidance technique while they are alive. In the real world, many people overlook estate planning for boats. Fortunately, married couples have an option to avoid probate of a boat if one of the spouses died before they did estate planning for their boat.

The surviving spouse can transfer one boat out of the deceased spouse’s name and into their own name through the county title office. This surviving spouse transfer happens outside probate court.

Ohio law does place limitations on surviving spouse transfers. For example, the boat must have a title for the surviving spouse to transfer it into their own name. The surviving spouse typically cannot transfer a boat into their name if the deceased spouse left the boat to someone else in their will or via a TOD designation or WROS title.

Transfer Boat to Trust

A final option to consider is transferring a boat into a trust, as trusts generally avoid probate court.. Once the owner of the boat (called the settlor of the trust) transfers the boat out of their own name and into the trust, the trustee owns the boat, and the terms of the trust determine what happens to the boat after the settlor’s death. With a trust, a boat can often pass to the new owner simpler and faster than if the boat had to go through a probate estate administration.

Of the four options in this blog post, a trust is the only option for boats without a title. That makes a trust an appealing option for people who have a fleet of kayaks or canoes or a collection of small antique boats with small, if any, motors. A trust can simplify the process of passing those watercraft on to family or friends or selling them to new owners.

Estate planning for boats requires careful consideration. A local estate planning attorney can help you understand your options. For estate planning and probate questions in Northeast Ohio, Lewis Legal, LLC is here to help.

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