Boat And Trailer Title and Registration Laws

Updated 2:27 PM ET, Mon December 7, 2015

Article highlights

  • The MSO and MCO are essentially the same thing. You will receive one or the other, but not both.
  • The MSO/MCO acts as a "temporary title" from the manufacturer, through the dealer, to you. You will use the MSO/MCO to apply for a state title and/or state registration.
  • Once you have complied with your state requirements and surrendered the MSO/MCO, you will be given a title and/or registration to prove you are the legal owner.
You've just purchased your new boat and/or trailer. The question now is: how can you verify that you are the legal owner? The chain of ownership always begins with the original manufacturer document, typically known as the Manufacturer's Statement of Origin (MSO). While this document is sometimes called the Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin (MCO), it is essentially the same thing and serves the same purpose. This document is generated by the manufacturer and is delivered with the boat or trailer to the appropriate dealer. You must be able to submit the original MSO (or MCO) in order to register your boat and meet insurance requirements.

Boat And Trailer Title and Registration Laws

What Is An MSO/MCO?

The MSO/MCO contains specific information that will identify only that boat or trailer. This information will include:

The manufacturer's name
The brand name/make of boat or trailer
The year manufactured
The HIN of the boat (or VIN of the trailer)

The Hull Identification Number (HIN) is unique to each specific boat; the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is unique to each specific trailer. Other information that may be included is the boat's dimensions, and possibly the model of the boat. For trailers, the shipping weight of the trailer, the make or body style, and the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) may also be included.

New boats will not be titled until they are registered. The MSO or MCO acts as a "temporary title" from the manufacturer, to the dealer, to you. The MSO or MCO will include the manufacturer's letterhead, company information, and must be signed by an officer of the company. This document will also have the original dealer's name and address printed on it. The back side of the MSO or MCO is used to transfer or assign ownership from the dealer to the first owner of the boat or trailer. This requires a signature from the dealer representative and the new owner along with the date of transfer or assignment. This document should be notarized at the time of transfer or assignment.

Once the MSO or MCO has been legally transferred to you, you will use this document to apply for a state title and/or state registration. Sometimes dealers may offer to apply to the state for the title and/or registration on your behalf; however, it is your legal obligation to apply for the appropriate title or registration within a given timeframe, and only you will be held responsible for any fines or penalties. Therefore, upon purchase of a new boat or trailer, always ask for the MSO (Manufacturer Statement of Origin) or the MCO (Manufacturer Certificate of Origin) before you leave the dealer. Additionally, many states require a copy of your bill of sale in order to complete your title and registration application.

MSO/MCO For Outboard Motors

An MSO or MCO is also necessary in order to register your new outboard motor. Just like the boat purchase, it will be the dealer who should provide you the MSO/MCO for the outboard motor as well. This document will originate from the outboard motor manufacturer and will be addressed to the dealer selling the outboard motor. Information on the document will include at a minimum:

Production date or year manufactured
Brand name/make
Size (as in Horsepower rating)
Model name
Serial Number of the motor

Again, the dealer will transfer or assign ownership of the outboard motor to you as the new owner by completing the information on the back side of the MSO/MCO. Many states require outboard motors be titled and/or registered, so it is imperative that you check with your state of residence regarding its requirements.

State Titles And Registration

Though each state has its own challenges, the title and registration process follows a well-worn route. If you are financing the purchase of your boat or trailer, the state will send the original title to the lien holder. The lien holder will remain on the title until you have satisfied the lien.

If you are purchasing a pre-owned boat or trailer, the documents you need will be very similar to those in a new purchase. The one exception is that instead of providing the MSO/MCO "temporary title", you will need to provide a copy of the title (if applicable) and/or a bill of sale from the prior owner to you. You must also provide a driver's license or other proof of identification legally identifying you as the person named on the bill of sale. After you complete the application process, a new title and/or registration will be drawn up in your name.

Because the laws and application process for titling and/or registering your boat and trailer vary from state to state, you must do your research to fully understand your rights and responsibilities. They can be quite complex and confusing. Some states require titling and registering of your boat, trailer and outboard motor (if you have one). On the other hand, some states do not title boats or trailers; they only require registration. If there is a lien, you may be required to title the boat or trailer, even though this step is not required if you own the boat or trailer outright. For some states, the weight of your trailer and/or boat will determine whether you must title and register your trailer, just register the trailer, or (depending on the state) do nothing at all. Alabama, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Tennessee are all states that do not require titling or registration of trailers. Most people mistakenly think South Carolina also does not require titling or registration of trailers. Take a closer look at their actual law:

Trailers with an empty weight, meaning just the weight of the trailer, of 2,501 pounds or greater must be titled and registered while trailers with an empty weight of 2,500 pounds or less do not require titling or registration.

That said, South Carolina highly recommends titling of all trailers, confusing isn't it?

Because this can be confusing, you must do your research to fully understand your rights and responsibilities. The title will always prove you are the rightful owner, making the transfer of sale to the new owner seamless. The bill of sale form is not an official document proving ownership, however many states now offer a bill of sale section in the registration that can be used to transfer ownership from one private individual to another. This registration and bill of sale, along with any other required proof of identification, will allow the buyer of your boat to register the boat in his/her name.

Most states utilize the Department of Motor Vehicle Division for titling and registering of trailers, but will use a different division of the State government, such as the Department of Natural Resources, Parks and Wildlife, in order to register your boat.

If your boat meets certain criteria, you may choose to document your boat with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) (which is a topic for a different article)! In many states, documenting your boat with the USCG does not relieve you of the burden of registering your boat in the state of primary use.


Once you have complied with the state requirements for titling and/or registering your boat you should visit The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, NASBLA, website. This website is a good reference for learning more about the specific boating laws in the state you intend to primarily operate your boat. Remember, these laws have all been written to assist you in some aspect of boat ownership, but it is up to you to research and understand your responsibilities in the boating world.

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