How to avoid paying taxes on your boat…legally!

Eds. Note: This article originally appeared in the Waterway Guide as a feature for cruisers.   Updated to reflect Maryland’s cap – more here.

Dirk Schwenk, Esq., is a real estate and maritime attorney located in Annapolis, Maryland.  If you are interested in his non-tax practice, please see Baylaw, LLC. For issues specific to waterfront property, please see Waterfrontlaw.

In my last article, I wrote about Maryland, specifically Maryland’s boat tax, and while Maryland and the Chesapeake are fantastic cruising grounds, I do recognize that there are other states in the Union. Since many of you readers and many of my clients venture out in the world-visiting far flung locales from Maine to Florida, the Caribbean and far beyond-I am often asked about the tax implications of other jurisdictions. I take these inquiries to mean:

How can I legally avoid paying taxes on my boat?

There is of course no simple answer to the question. If there were, the tax authorities would close it. That’s what happened in the good old days when it was pretty safe to register a boat to Delaware, place it in Coast Guard documentation, and call it good.

After reading this, many folks will just want to buy their boat, pay the tax, and go cruising, and that’s great. Many boat taxes support boating related activities and needed facilities. Others purchasers, however, plan to leave the country, or keep the boat moving for a long time, and perhaps have a higher threshold for risk. Paying sales tax may not be desirable or necessary, and they may be willing to do what is necessary to organize their boating life in a way that is not subject to tax.

This article is the first step, and the easiest step in that direction.

Before we get into specifics, however, let’s go back to the beginning. What kind of tax are we talking about and who collects it? There is no federal vessel tax (and may the federal luxury tax stay good and dead!), so taxes are imposed at the state and local levels. Generally, there are three taxes of concern to boat owners: sales tax, use or registration tax, and personal property tax. Sales tax is imposed, if at all, at the time of purchase. Use tax is imposed by sales tax states on goods that were not taxed at the time of purchase. Personal property tax is an annual tax, payable every year, on property that is kept within a jurisdiction. This article will focus on sales tax.

It is hard to keep track of all of the state taxes, and nearly impossible to keep track of all of the county and municipal taxes. Not only are they all different, but they also all subject to change. BOAT/US provides a good general comparison of state taxes on its website but I understand that it is being updated now after several years without revision.

Below is a table that gives the bare-bones of the state taxes in the East Coast cruising grounds as they exist at the moment (revised 2016). It does not include many defenses, exceptions, exclusions, penalties, interest on late payments, and any number of other important details, nor is it legal advice, but it does provide a rough snapshot of the tax on the purchase of a boat.

State Sales tax on boats? Personal property tax?
Alabama 2% No
Connecticut 6% No (but higher registration fees)
Delaware No No
District of Columbia No No
Florida 6% No
Georgia 4% + local Yes
Maryland 5% (2013 Edit — at least temporarily, MD is capped.  Here) No
Massachusetts 5% Yes
Maine 5% Yes
New Hampshire $10 to $1761.40 depending on size and propulsion with some exemptions No
New Jersey 3.5% Capped in 2016 at $20,000 Yes
New York 8.25% most counties Capped at $18,975 No
North Carolina 3% with $1,500 cap Yes
Pennsylvania 6%-7% No
Rhode Island No No
South Carolina 5% with $300 cap Yes
US Virgin Islands No No
Virginia 2% capped at $2,000 Yes

Mr. Schwenk provides representation in purchase, sale and tax and also buyer’s broker (selling broker) services to select clients.  It is strongly recommended that you do not enter into a contract with dual agency (one broker as both listing and selling broker).  If you would like buyer’s representation – please email with the heading “Baylaw Buyer’s Broker” or use this link: 

To return to the question-How can I legally avoid paying taxes on my boat-the middle column is the key. Sales tax is the tax on a purchase or transfer of a boat. If you want to avoid sales tax, the easiest option is to finalize your purchase in a jurisdiction that doesn’t tax the sale or caps the tax at a low number. This may mean driving to Delaware and choosing a boat at a Delaware dealer.

There are more sophisticated strategies as well, such as writing a contract that requires a Massachusetts boat to be purchased through a transaction that takes place New Hampshire. Or taking final possession and completing the purchase of a boat in international waters-this is where most of the big boats go. These latter items have their risks, however, particularly the fact that they make local tax authorities suspicious, even if the transaction is properly done. It does not help matters that some unscrupulous purchasers will fake an out-of-state or international transaction, and thereby paint legitimate purchases in a bad light.

Another very good option to avoid initial sales tax is to identify an escape clause in your local tax jurisdiction. In Maryland, for example, one need not pay sales tax on a boat that files a certification stating that it is going to leave the state within 30 days of purchase. Similarly, in Florida, a non-resident need not pay tax if the boat is taken to a different state shortly after purchase. If you anticipate taking your boat out of the country, using it in a state that does not have a sales tax, or actively cruising between lots of jurisdictions, avoidance of paying the initial sales tax can be a big cost savings. If nothing else, a boat can depreciate a good deal over the course of a few years.

I stated above that this article would address the first step in legally avoiding tax on a boat. Well, that was it. The first step is to legally avoid sales tax. Anyone that has been around boats, however, will recognize that this is just the beginning. Most sales tax states have two other closely related taxes, title tax and use tax. Use taxes were devised to take the profit out of going across state lines to purchase products, which is exactly the conduct we’re talking about here.

Use tax is usually imposed at the same rate as sales tax and is imposed when you bring the boat back into a state. Use tax must be of primary concern to anyone that has not paid sales tax. (If you have paid sales tax to a state however, you can rest easy, as sales tax is an offset to use tax). For Marylanders, use tax is the tax that a buyer will face on the boat purchased in Delaware and brought home on a trailer.

Future installments of this Waterway Law column will address use tax and personal property tax. These taxes are more complicated in their application than sales tax and take much more sophistication to legally avoid. Use tax is triggered by the use of the vessel and is subject to lots of argument about how much time triggers the tax as well as exceptions and defenses. Personal property tax is often collected by local counties or cities, and so it can be widely different even within a single state. There are no simple answers here.

In the meantime, if you are buying or have purchased a boat for a significant amount of money, you should seek specific legal advice about how to conduct your affairs. Avoiding sales tax is only the first step, but if done improperly, can bring far worse consequences such as penalties, interest, liens, etc. A good lawyer can provide advice about how to maintain your boat in a situation in which it does not owe tax, and if you follow that advice, you can save a significant amount of money.

Happy cruising!