When it comes to living in an RV full-time, there are a thousand details. But one of the most complicated aspects of being a full-time traveler is dealing with the legal aspects.
How do you get health insurance when you don’t “live” in any one state? How do you get your mail and renew your driver’s license? How do you vote or deposit checks? All of these tasks are necessary for today’s society, and all of them require you to have a legal, permanent address. But if you no longer have a permanent “home,” what do you do?
Major considerations include choosing a domicile state, setting up mail forwarding, and establishing a proof of residency. Let’s dive in and look at how to organize the logistics of living as a full-time RVer.
How to Choose a Domicile State
Right now, chances are you’re in a home or apartment that you live in full-time. You are a resident of your state, and you have also established domicile there. What’s the difference, you might ask, between residency and domicile, and why does it matter?
For full-time travelers, the difference between residency and domicile matters a lot. Residency is legally defined as “your place of abode.” It’s where you live right now. Your domicile is your legal, permanent residence; it’s the place where you intend to return after your absence. Your domicile is what ties you to a specific state. You can have many residences but only one domicile.
Another way to look at the difference between residency and domicile is through a profession. For example, a professional in Louisiana might travel to Missouri to work for six or nine months, or even longer. They might be considered “residents” of Missouri because of their length of stay. But they keep their old address, old driver’s license, and vehicle tags in Louisiana. Louisiana is where their home is, and more importantly, where they intend to return when their work is finished. In other words, Louisiana is their domicile.
Every U.S. citizen has to have a domicile to pay taxes, vote, open a bank account, and handle all the other logistical details that come with being a legal citizen. Even when you don’t have a “home” in the traditional sense of the word, you still have to choose and set up a domicile.
Choosing your domicile state is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a full-time RVer. The state you choose will affect how much (if any) income tax you pay. It will affect your auto insurance rates, how much you pay for vehicle registration, how your will is processed if you pass away, how much your spouse is entitled to if you get divorced, and even how easy it is to get health insurance.
You can choose any state to be your domicile state, but there are three states that are “domicile friendly,” making them popular choices for RVers: Texas, Florida, and South Dakota. These states make it easy to establish and maintain domicile. There are many mail-forwarding services set up in these states to process and forward your mail. They also have no state income tax.
Other states are more complicated. Many states require you to spend at least 183 days within the state in fixed quarters, such as a house or apartment, to qualify for domicile. This is why so many RVers choose Florida, Texas, or South Dakota for domicile.
When you transition to your domicile state, it’s important that you do your best to cut all ties with the state you currently live in. When states try to claim you as a resident (for tax and census purposes), they look for property to establish domicile. If that’s nonexistent, they look for other “contacts,” like a driver’s license, vehicle registration, voter registration, or employment records.
If you establish domicile in one state but still have “contacts” in another state, you might find yourself caught between two states that both want you to pay income taxes or other fees. Choose one state, and cut ties with the other completely if you can.
What do you need to consider when choosing your domicile state? Let’s take a closer look at some of the big issues.
Driver’s License, Vehicle Registration, and Emissions Testing
You’re going to need a driver’s license issued from your state of domicile. This means that you’re going to have to show up to the licensing office in person, with proof of residency, to get it.
The ease with which you can renew your license and register vehicles is an important factor when choosing domicile. Some states will allow you to renew online, while others require you to show up at the DMV in person to renew. Some states make you renew every five years, while others allow you to wait eight years. When you’re on the other side of the country and your license comes up for renewal, this can be a real pain.
Taxes and fees are also a factor. If you have a newer vehicle, you might pay thousands of dollars in taxes when you register it in your domicile state. You also need to consider whether or not a state requires safety inspections or emissions testing. If you choose a state that requires annual emissions testing, that will be one more trip you have to make.
Additionally, you need to look at what kind of rig you’re driving. If you’re traveling in a Class A motorhome, some states (like Texas) will require you to get a class B noncommercial license, which can take a few months to process. The state you choose for your domicile will also affect how much you pay for auto insurance. For example, there are far more people in Florida than South Dakota. There are also more natural disasters, which means you will likely pay more in auto insurance if Florida is your domicile state.
Most states allow you to register to vote when you go in for your driver’s license. But how easy is it to vote absentee in your domicile state of choice? Absentee ballots can always be used in national elections; however, every state is different when it comes to voting absentee for state and local elections. This is an important consideration when you start looking at the benefits and drawbacks of domicile for each state.
Banking can be challenging as a full-time RVer. Thanks to the Patriot Act, financial institutions are required to have a residential address on file for every consumer. Additionally, the law specifically excludes mail-forwarding addresses. Even if you have existing accounts at your bank, you can still get in trouble if you don’t change your address, and even temporarily lose access to your accounts if you get caught banking under an old address.
The Patriot Act does allow you to use the residential address of a family or friend, and most banks will not ask for proof that you actually live there. However, some will; if your bank does require proof of residency, you’ll have to provide a utility bill or other document showing you pay bills there. If you’re considering going on the road full-time, find out what each of your financial institutions requires in terms of proof of residency and, equally important, how they reinforce this requirement.
You also need to look at how easy it will be to use your current financial institutions on the road. Do they have an easy to use online banking system? Can you deposit checks with your phone? How many nationwide ATMs do they have? If it’s going to be a hassle to access your money easily on the road, you might need to find a new bank.
Health insurance can be complicated when you’re a full-time RVer constantly traveling across state lines. If you’re eligible for subsidies through the Affordable Care Act, be aware that there are very few “nationwide” plans available. You will need to do a lot of research to find a plan that will be accessible – and affordable – while you travel.
One of the easiest ways to navigate the complex health-care system is with RVerInsurance. This site was started by full-time RVers, for full-time RVers, to help them find insurance for their unique situation. As a full-time traveler, you fall into a black hole when it comes to health insurance, and the professionals here can help you get coverage and navigate the system. They also do an excellent job of staying up to date with changing coverages and laws. You can see a list here of the health-care plans they recommend for full-time RVers.
If you do go with private insurance, don’t forget that you can deduct health insurance premiums and other health expenses from your taxes.
Other Questions to Address
There are many other legalities to consider when choosing your domicile state:
- If you own a business, which state is friendlier for start-ups and entrepreneurs? What is the tax liability for your business?
- How will each state handle inheritance issues, especially taxes, if someone in your family passes away?
- How easy is it to get out of jury duty if you’re selected?
- If you’re homeschooling, which state has the easiest system to navigate?
How to Establish Mail Forwarding and Proof of Residency
Once you choose your domicile state, you have to establish a permanent address. This address is your “home base,” and your proof of residency. Almost all full-time RVers use a mail-forwarding service to obtain a permanent address.
Escapees Mail Forwarding
One of the most well-known mail-forwarding services is through Escapees.
Once you sign up, Escapees issues you a permanent address, either through their Livingston, TX branch, Box Elder, SD branch, or Bushnell, FL branch. Obtaining this permanent address is the first step in establishing domicile in that state. You’ll use this address to get a driver’s license, register your vehicles, get auto insurance, and register to vote.
Once you’re on the road, all your first-class mail and packages are sorted by hand and held until you write or call Escapees to let them know where to forward it. Generally, this location will be the local post office by General Delivery. The post office will hold your mail for up to 30 days (although some offices will hold it for less, so it’s best to check). You can pick up your mail by showing a picture ID.
Many RV parks will let you forward mail to their main office; some even have dedicated mailboxes for this purpose. You can choose to have your mail sent by UPS or FedEx. Escapees will scan your mail so you know what’s coming. You can even request them to open and read your mail.
One of the biggest advantages of using Escapees is that they’re located in the three most popular states for setting up domicile. Another benefit is that they’re experts in establishing domicile. They can’t offer you legal advice, but they can help you navigate the process. Prices for Escapees mail-forwarding services range from $195 to $235 annually. This initial price includes a $50 postal deposit, which you will have to renew when it gets low. There is also an annual $40 membership fee to use their services.
When my husband and I were traveling full-time, we chose Escapees to handle our mail. We were very happy with their professionalism and expediency.
Other Mail-Forwarding Services
Here is a list of other mail-forwarding services by state:
Of course, there are mail-forwarding services in all 50 states. I’ve focused solely on Florida, Texas, and South Dakota simply because these three states are the most popular domicile choices for full-time RVers.
Reduce Your Mail to Save Money
When you use a mail-forwarding service, you have to pay for every piece of mail that’s sent to you. Your postage is billed by weight and deducted from your postal account every time your mail is sent. The more you can do to reduce unwanted mail before you depart on your journey, the more money you’ll save when you’re on the road.
To opt out of prescreened credit card offers, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests OptOutPrescreen, which is the official Consumer Credit Reporting Industry website. Signing up will take you off of the mailing lists for five years. This will also help keep you safe from credit card fraud. Next, visit DMAChoice.org, which is run by the Data and Marketing Association. Signing up will remove your name from direct marketing lists for 10 years.
Setting up domicile in a new state can be a complicated process, so it’s best to start several months before you hit the road. You will want to make sure that you have all the necessary documents when you go to the DMV to get your driver’s license and register your vehicles. Some of these documents (especially those required for a noncommercial Class B license) can take some time to obtain, so it’s best to start early.
If you’ve already set up domicile, what advice do you have for others who are about to start the process?