Living full time on the road can be tricky in the modern world. Most of our institutions are set up for people who live in one place and only travel occasionally. This article will try to help you understand the laws regarding state residency in the US and consider if you want to change your residency as a full timer.
Since the founding of the US legal authority has been divided between the federal and state governments. When you are a resident of a given state, you are subject to their laws. Furthermore, state services are generally limited to residents of the state. Each state make’s its own laws about what is required to be considered a resident of the state.
At the core of most state laws is the idea of domicile. Your domicile is the singular place you call home. In contrast, an abode is a place you may live in but do not claim as your domicile. Thus a person with a summer home and a winter home in two different states must choose one to be their domicile and the other merely an abode.
At its legal heart, domicile is an intent, a state of mind. The minimum you need to do to declare domicile is to be in a place and make an honest and earnest declaration that it is your home. That said, if you are in a situation where you need to prove it in the eyes of the law, your actions and circumstance had better back up your declaration.
Not every state is entirely based entirely on domicile. New York, for instance, has laws that can use either domicile or other factors. If you own an abode in the state for more than 11 moths of the year or physically reside in the state for more than 187 days, they consider you a resident, even if you have domicile and residency in another state.
Proving Domicile and Residence
When your residency comes into dispute, expect the following:
- If you are asking something from the state, you will need to work to demonstrate you are a resident.
- If the state is asking something from you, like taxes, you will need to work to demonstrate you are not a resident of the state.
You may find for different purposes there are different requirements. Getting in-state tuition, for instance, is much harder than getting a drivers license. Alaska gives a check to all its residents each year, you can bet that you will have to jump some hoops to prove Alaska is your home if you want to get one of those.
Stronger Evidence for Domicile
- Physical address you reside at (Abode)
- Mailing address
- Voter registration
- Vehicle registration
- Paying taxes in that jurisdiction
- Drivers license
- Listed address on legal documents
- Declaration of domicile on legal documents
- Residence/Domicile of immediate family (wife and children)
Weaker Evidence for Domicile
- Ownership of property
- Current employment
- Past employment
- Utilities and other local fees paid
- Membership in local organizations
- Charity made to local organizations
- Business licenses
Considerations for the Full Timer
A true full-time nomad is in an unusual position when considering state residency, though not entirely unique. There are US citizens who live abroad and have similar challenges and opportunities. Members of the armed forces stationed away from home likewise. You may find day-to-day hassles dealing with bureaucracy, but there are well-established legal precedents and principles for these situations.
Unlike most people, you often don’t physically reside in the place where you are going to claim domicile. You call your RV home, but for legal purposes, you are going to need to choose a state in which claim domicile. The default choice is the place you lived before you set out on the road. You likely have plenty of evidence that will support it is your place of domicile. If you want to change it you will need to start establishing the connections needed to prove you mean what you say.
Reasons to change your home state
- State and local taxes
- Vehicle and drivers licensing rules
- Insurance options
- State school tuition
- Politics and voting
- Sense of identity
Remember that this is not meant to be a game. You need to pick a domicile and honestly treat that like home. Whatever your reasons for picking it, you need to commit to it as much as possible to ensure you can back up your claim. Trying to be a resident of one state for low taxes but maintaining voting registration, property, and ID for another is going to get you into trouble. Make a choice and commit to it.
Most states require you to appear in person to renew your driver’s license and to bring your vehicle into a state approved testing facility for emissions inspections. Every state also has a vehicle registration renewal process that will cost you some amount of money to keep your tabs up to date. For the full-time road warrior, it is most convenient if a state does not require you to show up to renew your driver’s license or vehicle registration. Of course, we all want to pay as little as possible for renewing our tabs.
Like anything else, State laws can and will change over time. My favorite resource for looking up laws by state is the AAA digest of motor laws.
South Decota is one of the go-to states for convenience. You can get your vehicle registered by mail, it is fairly cheap, and they have no emissions inspection requirements. You need to show up in person to get a drivers license, but you don’t need to show up to renew it.
Taxes are complicated and like other state laws, subject to change over time. Generally, the type of taxes most RVers are concerned about are Income Taxes and Capital Gainst Taxes. Some states may have a property tax that includes your RV and if you mail order a lot of goods, general sales tax can be a factor. The best choice for you depends on how you make your living. Generally, most full-timers are looking to avoid state income taxes.
Seven states have no income tax and instead, rely on sales and property tax. This makes them prime choices for full-timers. They are Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. Of these, Florida, South Dakota, and Texas are some of the most popular choices because they also have liberal vehicle registration rules.
If you want all the details on state taxes, the Tax Foundation: State Taxes page is a fantastic, up to date resource for your research.
Nearly all insurance in the US is based on State law and regulation. Furthermore, most insurance companies factor zip code into their pricing models. This means your home state matters a great deal in both what kind of insurance is available to you and how much you will pay for it. If you get subsidized health care through Medicaid or the ACA (Obamacare) that also varies state to state in many respects.
If you are older and have limited income, health insurance costs could well be a much bigger financial consideration that taxes. The same goes if you have a low income as many of us do while trying to first make a go of earning an income on the road.
Of course, the price is only the beginning of the considerations. You will want a plan that has the kind of coverage you are interested in and you will need one that allows for coverage wherever you are in the country. Most plans are focused on a network of local providers. It’s worth knowing the basic plan types with respect to providers.
- HMO: These only offer coverage for in-network providers
- PPO: These allow out of network coverage at higher deductible
- POS: These allow out of network coverage provided you get an in-network referral
All said it is a very complicated topic and we recommend further research.
School Tuition and Other Services
Each state has various benefits available to its residents. Discounted college tuition is a significant one for many people. Often the requirements for in-state tuition are more stringent than basic residency so it’s worth checking out.
Government assistance is also something that can be important for some folks and each state has its own rules to qualify for benefits. Typically these are also on the stringent side to prevent folks hopping from state to state just to try and cash in.
Politics and Identity
One of the things dependent on your state and address is voting. If you are an avid voter, being in a state with mail-in or absentee voting is pretty important. Most provide some option for travelers or military personnel but in some cases, it is easy, in others, a bit of a hassle.
You may also find the politics of a given state to your liking or not. If you vote in a state where the majority tends to favor your politics, you will likely have better opportunities to influence your representatives. If you vote in a state where you are out of sync, then you may feel politically marginalized.
Finally, there is the simple matter of identity. Some of us feel a strong attachment to a particular state, region, or city. It could be somewhere we lived in the past or where we want to settle down in the future. Going full time is often a matter of following your heart. Picking a home state can be the same way if you want it to.
Establishing Domicile: Practical Steps
Typically the first thing to do is get a mailing address in the state you want to declare as your domicile. You want this to be a physical address with a street name rather than a PO box. Many institutions such as banks or DMVs won’t accept a PO box as an address and the main purpose of this address is for use in establishing other ways to prove your residence.
The most common way of getting such and address is with a mailing service. UPS and many other companies offer such mailing services. Ideally, you want one that will receive mail and scan it for you, then forward items of interest wherever you like. You will need to complete some post office forms to allow the service to legally receive your mail. Start using this new address and put in for a change of address wherever is feasible.
The next practical step you can take is to cancel your Voter registration in your old state and get one for your new state. Often this can be done by mail provided you have a physical address (your new mailing service address). Some states with Voter ID laws may have more stringent requirements. Vote.org is a good site for helping you get registered to vote.
The third step and the biggest is to get a drivers license for your new state. In most cases, this is going to require you to actually be in the state and show up in person to get the license. You can check the AAA website to get info on the rules for each state. With a drivers license showing you’re in-state address, you are well on your way to establishing and proving your residency there.