Couple researching about domicile vs residence for nomads and van lifers.

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Van Lifers: Domicile vs. Residence for Nomads

If you live life on the road without a permanent address, then you need to understand domicile and how it affects your rights. Learn more here.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Are you a full time van lifer? Perhaps you’re a digital nomad who loves living on the open road, free from being tied down to any specific location. You can live on a much smaller budget and see the world while working from anywhere. To some people, this sounds like a dream where you can have your cake and eat it too.

However, this also means that you don’t always fit into neat little boxes designed by our legal and social system. You need a permanent location, or domicile,  to conduct important tasks and business. What’s the difference between a domicile vs. residence, you ask? This difference is critical for you to know. Keep reading to find out why and how van lifers can establish domicile on the road. 

What is a domicile?

A domicile is the location in which an individual maintains their permanent home. Nationally, this is the state you live in, while globally, it’s the country you live in. 

Legal language often describes a domicile as the location in which you intend to remain indefinitely. Your domiciliary status is important because of many laws that determine how you conduct your personal, business, and legal activities. 

When you are born, your domicile is the state in which you live with your parents or legal guardians. However, you can change your domicile when you become an adult and choose a domicile of choice. This remains your domicile indefinitely until you choose to change it by relocating.

Note that however many homes you might own, you can only have one domicile. It is typically the location in which you create your life, such as the home in which you live, where you work, or register your car. 

As you might imagine, establishing a domicile could be tricky as a van lifer. If you’ve committed to live on the road without a home base, how can you establish a domicile? We’ll discuss this shortly.

Why does domicile matter?

Establishing your domiciliary status is important, even for van lifers. That’s because without a domiciliary, you’ll be prevented from doing many activities that are required and not required. Without a legal address, you won’t be able to:

  • Get a driver’s license

  • Get a passport

  • Register your vehicles

  • Register to vote

  • File or pay your taxes

  • Start a business

  • Open a bank account or other type of financial account

  • Purchase insurance, including health, auto, life, and other types of insurance

These are all essential needs if you desire to be a working, living, breathing citizen. However, don’t worry, just because you live in a van doesn’t mean you’ll be stripped of your rights. Keep reading to find out how you can establish a domicile on the road. 

Domicile vs. Residence

Legally speaking, there is a distinction between a domicile vs. residence. A residence is anywhere you might live, part-time or full-time. In contrast, a domicile is where you maintain your permanent legal address. It’s also located in the state in which you pay your taxes. 

How van lifers & nomads can establish domicile on the road

Even if you were to plan to live on the road for the foreseeable future, you still need to establish a domicile. That’s because you need to maintain a permanent legal address that you can use to pay your taxes, vote, obtain legal documents, or get health insurance. 

For most van lifers, the most convenient option is maintaining the domicile you originally had. Maybe it’s where you got your driver’s license or registered your vehicle. Maybe you use your parents’ address, or one provided by your best friend. However, this doesn’t always work for everyone. Some van lifers don’t have friends or family to rely on, or over time, they could become resentful of dealing with your mail all the time. You may even want to change domiciles to a more central location in the U.S. or to take advantage of better tax rates.

Here are the steps on how you can switch your domicile. Many of these steps can be done from the road:

  1. Establish a mailing address in your desired state. Even if you don’t have a permanent residence to use, you can sign up with a mail-forwarding service.

  2. File a change of address form with the U.S. Post Office. Switch over your address for any mail you currently receive.

  3. Take out auto, health, and other insurance policies using your new address.

  4. Unregister to vote in your old state and register to vote in your new one.

  5. Register your vehicle and get a driver’s license in your new state (this requires you to travel to your new state, so plan ahead.)

While these are the common steps to establish a domiciliary, it’s a good idea to establish any other ties with your new state that you can think of in case your domiciliary intent is ever called into question. Sever your ties with your old state as well. 

Other considerations for establishing domicile as a nomad

When picking where to establish your domicile, there are several considerations. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Does this state make it easy to establish a domicile? Or do they make it difficult?

  • Do I know someone in this state who would let me use their address? If not, is there a mail forwarding service available?

  • What are the tax rates in this state?

  • Does this state allow me to register my vehicles remotely, or easily at least?

  • Are there any requirements that would force me to return to the state more often than I’d like?

  • How much are the driver license and registration fees here? Is there a different state where they’re cheaper? Do they make me get a special license for my van or RV?

  • How are the auto insurance rates here compared to other states?

  • Is the state conveniently located?

  • How easy is it to send in absentee votes?

Don’t forget to update your estate plan

In legal terms, there is a distinction between a domicile vs. residence. A person can have several residences in different locations, but they can only have one domicile. This is the location in which they intend to maintain their permanent address indefinitely. Signs of a person’s domicile include the state that issued their driver’s license, where they pay their taxes, where they receive their mail, and where they are registered to vote, etc.

As a van lifer who is permanently on the road, establishing a domicile is completely possible. Further, it’s an important decision. You must have a domicile to be a functioning member of society. Here, you might even have the option of establishing a new domicile where you can take advantage of lower tax rates or an easy-to-access location.

If you decide to change your domicile, take care to update your Estate Plan to reflect any changes. Trust & Will’s online estate planning platform makes it super easy for van lifers to create their Will and/or Trust from the road. Click here to learn how to get started. 

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