What is a Maritime Lien?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 12 February 2020
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A maritime lien represents a claim on a ship or other water vessel for unpaid work, services or salaries. It provides security to ensure payment to any person who makes repairs or provides maintenance, insurance, fuel or docking space for these types of crafts as well as to those who work on the ship. The liens fall under admiralty law and also apply to any damage or injuries caused by the vessel, no matter whether the craft is moored.

This type of lien differs from other property liens because it can be used to place a hold on property even if the vessel is at sea. A hold can be placed on any part of a craft that is able to navigate water, including engines, pumps, cargo, furniture and accessories such as fishing supplies. A maritime lien also can be used to force the sale of a ship or vessel in order to collect an unpaid debt. Under admiralty law, referred to as the “law of the sea,” each country or region defines how a maritime lien is enforced. Many international treaties have been devised to create more uniform statutes.


Courts enforce a maritime lien after a creditor files for the action. After the lien is granted, a vessel can be seized and held until the unpaid debts have been resolved. If the owner of the ship cannot pay or is unwilling to pay, the craft can be sold in order to recover the outstanding monies owed. A public auction is the most common form of sale, and ships are often sold for much less than they are actually worth.

Maritime liens impose various statutes of limitations on maritime property, depending on what type of claim is sought and regional laws. They typically range from six months for unpaid wages to three years for personal injury or damage claims. If a maritime lien is placed on cargo, it generally is effective only as long as the goods remain on the ship. The laws governing a maritime lien provide protection against unwarranted delays in filing an action to safeguard those who purchase a ship in the interim.

There are exceptions to the law for boats or other watercraft stored in dry dock, including sea planes housed in a hangar. Exceptions to maritime liens also exist for barges used as restaurants that operate at a permanent location and do not navigate open water. Maritime liens also do not apply to canoes or kayaks that are used to promote tourism.


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