Eds. Note: This article was published in the online Waterway Guide, December, 2007. It is reproduced with thanks to Dozier’s Waterway Guide and Skipper Bob Publications.
Maryland’s winter of discontent
(because that’s when the taxman comes)
Editor’s note: With controversy roiling over South Carolina’s boat tax policy, we thought we would ask the experts from the Annapolis law firm of Baylaw, LLC to explain how taxes work in some of the big boating states along the Waterway.
Yes, its that time again, the winter ducks arrive, the cold fronts roll in, and Boat Tax Enforcement Division on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources wraps up its seasonal investigations and issues vessel tax assessments. You will know it if you get one, it says “Assessment of Tax” and it’s printed on colored paper. It notifies you that you have 30 days from its issuance to appeal or it becomes final-and you do not have much of a remedy if you do not agree with its contents. Do not dawdle, the 30 days is a real deadline.
For the uninitiated, this paper can be quite a shock. It is the culmination of an investigation which typically includes monthly surveys of your boats location, an analysis of its fair market value, and an investigation into its ownership, including the ownership of any corporation that may it may be titled to. For a $100,000 boat, the assessment is an unexpected bill for 5 percent of the value ($5,000) plus a 10 percent penalty ($500) plus interest running at 18 percent from the date that the boat became taxable, up to three years.
Interest can easily eclipse the amount of the penalty, and so the bill can easily reach and surpass $6,000 on a $100,000 boat. Scaling up, the bill on a $1 million boat can easily reach and surpass $60,000. If for any reason the DNR believes that tax was avoided on the basis of fraud or gross negligence, the penalty will be 100 percent of the tax, and so the total assessment will be growing toward $12,000 or $120,000.
Most boaters will not face such an assessment because they will have paid sales tax on their vessel at the time of purchase or they will have paid tax when they registered and titled the vessel. Such is the case for a runabout purchased from a Maryland dealer or titled with Maryland. There are, however, lots of boats that are not subject to sales tax at purchase, including boats purchased in non-tax states (i.e. Delaware or Rhode Island), boats purchased abroad, home-built boats and some commercial vessels.
If those boats are federally documented, they are not subject to state titling laws, and they may not have been legally obligated to pay tax. This is the favorite bait of boat tax enforcement: the federally documented vessel that has not previously paid sales or use tax to any state. The second favorite bait? The boat that is registered to a non- or low-tax state such as Virginia, but that is principally used in Maryland. If you are in one of those categories (and you have not yet fallen asleep) you should definitely continue reading.
Maryland taxes boats in three main instances, all of which are subject to certain caveats and exceptions. Those instances are:
1) a boat that is purchased in the State;
2) a boat that is titled in the state; and,
3) a boat that is principally used in the state during any particular calendar year, assuming that it is in the State more than 90 days in that year.
The first item is pretty clear. If the money and the boat change hands in this state, it’s a Maryland purchase, if parts of the transaction take place out of state, well, it depends. The second item is clear. If you apply for a Maryland title (or you are required by law to do so), tax is due. The third item is the one that causes the most consternation for boaters -Principal Use.
Under Maryland law a boat is in principal use in the state or territory of the United States in which it is used most during a calendar year. Thus if you use it 100 days in Maryland, 200 days in the BVI and 50 days in Florida, the state of principal use is in Maryland. BVI does not count (it’s not a state of the United States) (EDS NOTE — AS OF JANUARY, 2008, IT IS POSSIBLE THAT THE BVI AND OTHER NON-US JURISDICTIONS MAY COUNT — IF IT MATTERS TO THE ANALYSIS OF YOUR CASE, PLEASE CALL FOR SPECIFIC ADVICE), and Florida has less days than Maryland.
Things get a bit tricky from that point, though. Days only count in Maryland if the boat is “in use.” In use does not mean its being used (in the sense of operating it), but means by definition any time that it is in the water or any time that it is kept in a structure in readiness for use. Thus (stay with me here) a boat that is in Maryland, outside, and out of the water is not in use; but a boat that is in the water but not being used, is in use. Also, it is generally recognized that a boat that is in the water but winterized is not in use for principal use analysis, but it is considered that a boat on a trailer, indoors or out, is in use.
Confused? No worries … so is everyone else.
So what should you do if you get an assessment, or perhaps more importantly, if you would like to avoid getting one? First, you should be aware that Maryland recently extended its cruising window to 90 days-if the boat was not purchased in Maryland, you can cruise for no more than 90 days without facing tax liability, even if you do not spend more time in another single state.
Second, you should be aware that there are exceptions for boats that are out of the water, winterized, or undergoing significant repairs. The details of those exceptions will have to wait for another article, but they should be considered if the boat is going to be (or has been) in Maryland for an extended stay. Third, you can be sure to keep (and keep evidence of keeping) your boat in another state for more days than in Maryland. Finally, if you receive an assessment, be sure to act quickly. If you have good defenses, and you do not raise them in time, they will not be so good.
If you are going to need counsel-that is, if you may have a defense and there is a significant amount at issue-identify one who knows this area, hire them in time get an appeal in the 30 day deadline, and do so before contacting the DNR yourself. I often see people revealing facts that were better left unsaid, or paying tax that was not owed. A little bit of good advice can save a lot of heartache in the long run, it may also be able save money in any negotiation if tax must be paid.
(This explainer comes courtesy of J. Dirk Schwenk. He has been active in maritime and Admiralty law since 1999, is based in Annapolis, MD, and focuses on issues of concern for vessel owners, marine businesses and those that live, work and play on the water.)