Could you be set to inherit a boat or pass a title?

Here's what to consider if being a beneficiary of a Will may include a boat.

A group of boats lined up at a marina

What initial paperwork should I be aware of?

Ideally, when you purchase a boat, you should acquire all Bills of Sale dating back to the build date of the boat to evidence full title history. This should include a record of any change of ownership including when a person inherits a boat. A complete history of documentation is not always available, especially with older boats, but it is the preferential starting point. Therefore, if you find yourself inheriting a boat or purchasing a boat that has been acquired by way of inheritance, beneficiaries and purchasers alike should ensure that the right steps have been followed for the title to pass from the previous owner. The documentation is all-important to keep intact the chain of ownership. 

A beneficiary may inherit either through a Will or by way of intestacy. 

What is the inheritance process?

When the owner of a boat dies, they may well have left the boat to a beneficiary in their Will.  Where there is a Will, Executors will be appointed to manage and distribute the estate according to the contents of the Will. The Executors obtain authority to deal with the estate by virtue of a Grant of Probate which is issued by the Probate Registry.  

If someone dies intestate (that is, without having made a Will), their estate passes on Statutory Trusts, which means the estate is divided according to statute between their surviving relatives. There is a strict formula as to who gets what. The estate is dealt with by someone (usually their next of kin) taking out Letters of Administration, which again are issued by the Probate Registry.

The Probate Registry may take some months to issue the Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration depending on the complexity of the deceased’s estate and the efficiency of the Executors. If the Executors appoint a Solicitor to act for them the process may be quicker. 

We advise that the boat should not change hands whilst the Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration are awaited, as the Executors have no legal authority to distribute the estate at this stage and therefore good title in the boat is not capable of being passed on to a purchaser. 

So what documentation should a beneficiary/purchaser be looking for?

Once the Executors are in receipt of the Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration they should, in order to keep the chain of ownership of the boat intact, issue a Bill of Sale in the Executors names as Transferors to the beneficiary(s) as Transferees. (The RYA provide specific guidance in relation to the execution of the Bill of Sale under these circumstances). 

Accompanying that Bill of Sale, ideally, will be a certified copy of the Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration and where there is a Will, a copy of that part of it which leaves the boat to the beneficiaries.

If the beneficiary decides to keep the boat, they will have a complete record of the transfer of ownership from the deceased to themselves.  If they decide to sell the boat, they will then need to execute a Bill of Sale in their name as Transferor to the purchaser as Transferee.  They should provide all documentation supporting the chain of ownership (as referred to above), keeping a copy for themselves.  

If possible, the beneficiary should also obtain all other supporting paperwork for the boat, such as the Certificate of Registry, Builder’s Certificate, evidence of VAT status, evidence of compliance with the Recreational Craft Regulations and any other documentation that there may be, such as invoices for work, mooring receipts, harbour dues receipts, insurance details etc.

If you are purchasing from the Executors of the Deceased’s Estate, once the Executors are in receipt of the Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration, they should execute a Bill of Sale in favour of the purchaser. Again, the Bill of Sale should have attached to it a certified copy of the Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration and a copy of the extract of the Will (together with all other supporting documentation as referred to above.

If you are purchasing from the Beneficiary of the Estate, the beneficiary should execute a Bill of Sale to the purchaser and provide the purchaser with the Bill of Sale from the Executors to the beneficiary and the certified copy Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration and relevant extract from the Will, together with all other supporting documentation as referred to above.

If the boat is registered on Part I or Part III (SSR) of the British Registry, the new owner will need to contact the Registry to arrange the transfer of ownership or re-registration.

RYA members can benefit from additional advice on this subject and other marine related matters as part of their membership. Members can visit the Inheriting a boat and Passing a Title page in the Legal hub. For further information, members should contact the Legal team on 02380 604223 or via email