Cheryl and I have been Texans for the last 55 and 39 years, respectively. But a couple of days ago, we both became Floridians. No, we’re not giving up the RV lifestyle. And in fact, our RV and truck never even left Nevada. What we actually did was change our legal domicile from Texas to Florida. Here’s why and how we did it.
What the heck is “domicile”?
In legal terms, your domicile is the state to which you intend to return. Your domicile determines where you vote, where (and if) you pay state taxes, where you register your vehicles, where you get insurance, and how much that insurance costs.
When you live in a “sticks and bricks” home, your legal domicile is pretty obvious. It’s usually the state where your primary residence and most of your property is located.
But when your home has wheels, like ours does, domicile gets both more complicated and more flexible. We no longer own any real estate, and don’t even have stuff in a storage unit. Virtually every tangible thing we own is in our RV. Without ties to any specific state, our domicile can be pretty much anywhere that we choose to maintain a permanent address for legal purposes.
For the last year and a half, our domicile was at our son’s apartment in the Dallas area. We used his address for our driver’s licenses, vehicle titles and voter registrations. All the rest of our mail went to our mailing address, a private mailbox at the excellent Escapees Mail Service in Livingston, Texas.
Why we changed our domicile
The main reason, in two words? Health insurance.
When I left full-time employment, I technically “retired” and then my company re-hired me as a temporary employee. As at most companies, temps or part-time employees aren’t eligible for regular group health insurance coverage. Instead, we’ve had coverage through COBRA for the last 18 months, but that will run out at the end of this year.
As most people know, it is very difficult to obtain health insurance other than through a group (employer-sponsored) plan. All individually-issued policies require risk underwriting, and the insurers can and will decline anyone who isn’t in perfect health. Like many others in their mid-50s, neither of us fits that description, so we knew an individual policy was out of the question. And it will be almost 10 years until we’re eligible for Medicare.
So what to do until then? Our remaining options, in increasing order of preference, were:
- Go uninsured, which we deemed to be much too risky at our age
- Purchase a fixed-indemnity insurance plan combined with a preventive healthcare plan, like the package offered through Escapees Healthcare Solutions. The challenge here is the “fixed” part of fixed-indemnity. The benefits are capped at a maximum of $10,000, which is not nearly enough to cover the costs of a major illness or catastrophic injury.
- Join a healthcare cost-sharing ministry (HCSM) such as Liberty HealthShare or AlieraCare. Both of these HCSMs will admit anyone regardless of religion, an important issue for us, and they’re both popular with many RVers. While an HCSM would have been our next-best option, it’s not insurance. There’s no guarantee of payment, and any pre-existing conditions are excluded for one to two years.
- Purchase insurance coverage on HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange created by the Affordable Care Act.
Texas, unfortunately, is one of the states that has fought implementing the ACA at every turn. Combined with the shortcomings of the ACA itself, that meant that most insurers have withdrawn from the Texas market. In both Dallas and Livingston (which we could use as our domicile if we wanted to), the only viable plan was a Blue Cross HMO. It’s not bad coverage, but as an HMO, the provider network and the benefits end at the state line. That wouldn’t be much use for us if we need medical care as we travel around the country and can’t get back to Texas.
For that reason, we started looking at other states’ plans on the federal health insurance exchange. To enroll in another state’s plan, however, we knew we’d need to be domiciled in that state. Thus began our search for a new state to call our “home”.
Why domicile in Florida?
First, we wanted to be in a state that didn’t tax personal income or investment earnings. That narrowed the list to six states other than Texas: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming. Theoretically, we could have chosen any of those. (Note that state tax laws vary based on where you earn your income. If you earn income in a state that taxes it, you might still have to pay tax there even if you’re domiciled in a non-income-tax state. You’ll need a professional tax advisor to figure that out.)
Besides Texas (which is a popular domicile for RVers), two other states, South Dakota and Florida, have very RV-friendly laws. It’s relatively easy to become domiciled there without physically residing in the state for some period of time, and it’s also simple to handle matters like vehicle registration and driver’s license renewals by mail. And of those two, we’d heard from other RVers that Florida had the best health insurance options.
Indeed, on the federal health insurance exchange for Florida, we were able to locate a variety of PPO plans with Florida Blue, the state’s Blue Cross affiliate. Just as in other states, these plans require members to use a Florida Blue network provider when you’re in the state. But when you’re “traveling away from home”, you can use providers in any other state’s Blue Cross network. In other words, it’s true nationwide coverage—exactly what we needed. And with our now-reduced annual income, the price was right, too: just under $400/month with a $2,000 per person deductible, but first-dollar coverage (not subject to the deductible) with reasonable copays for routine doctor visits and prescriptions, and a maximum out of pocket limit of $5,500/year.
Other benefits to Florida domicile besides health insurance
Although health insurance was the primary motivator for our “move”, we discovered a few other nice benefits to becoming Floridians.
Most significantly, the cost for our RV insurance through Progressive, which includes “full-timers” coverage—basically equivalent to the liability insurance portion of a homeowner’s policy—dropped almost 39%, from more than $1,800 a year to only about $1,100. We’re not quite sure what accounts for the difference. Insurance premiums are determined largely by the loss experience in the zip code of your address, so maybe hail and tornadoes cause more losses in Texas than hurricanes and alligators do in Florida? In any case, it was a nice surprise. (In contrast, the premium difference on our truck through USAA was less than a dollar a year. Go figure.)
In addition to this cost savings, the vehicle registration fees in Florida are a bit less than in Texas. And, we can renew (online and by mail) for two years at a time, so we’ll save a little money there each year too.
The next benefit was non-monetary, but still psychologically important: we’ll now be voting in a political “swing state”, where our vote could potentially make a difference in national elections.
And finally, I’m told that Floridians get significant discounts at Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and other theme parks! 🙂 I hope we’ll get to take advantage of those at some point.
Preparing to make the change
Just as we had read in the research I did online, changing our domicile to Florida was surprisingly simple. The Escapees RV Club has a helpful step-by-step guide to Florida domicile. In addition, we followed the excellent guidance provided in “How to Move to Florida in 1 Hour” by a fellow full-time RVer on her blog, Winnie Views. I won’t go through all the steps here, but if you’re considering changing your domicile to Florida, those two pages tell you just about everything you’ll need to know. Chris and Cherie at Technomadia also went through the process, which they documented in a post titled “Setting up Domicile in Florida as a Full Time RVer“.
The first thing we needed to obtain was a Florida address. Escapees has a perfect solution for that, called Escapees:HOME. Members can use the Sumter Oaks Escapees RV park in Bushnell, Florida (there’s also a South Dakota option) as their legal address, and any mail received there gets forwarded on to Livingston and processed with your other mail. You do need to subscribe to the Escapees Mail Service, but we already did, so adding the Florida “home” service just required signing an agreement and sending it back to them.
Now, we needed to “move” to our new address. We informed both our auto insurers of the change, and they issued us new Florida policies and ID cards using the new address. Our mailing address on Rainbow Drive in Livingston, Texas remained the same for everything other than legal documents.
We then began filling out the various forms we’d need when we made the required personal appearance in Florida. One of these was a VIN affidavit. The State of Florida doesn’t require that your vehicles be physically present in the state to be registered and titled there—which was nice, because ours were on the other side of the country. As an alternative, a law enforcement officer can sign an affidavit that verifies the vehicle identification numbers (VINs) on the Florida forms. It took a few calls in Pahrump, Nevada, where we’d been staying, to find the right department, but eventually we learned that what we needed was called a “VIN check”, and that the sheriff did that. Within an hour, a friendly sheriff’s deputy came to our RV, checked the VINs, and signed the affidavits.
We become Floridians
Next, it was time for us to fly to Florida for a couple of days. With all our forms and identity documents in a large envelope (which I was terrified we’d somehow lose during the trip), we set off for our new home state. Here’s a complete list of everything we took with us:
- Current US passports (primary identification for new driver’s licenses)
- Original Birth certificates (not needed because we had our passports)
- Original Social Security cards (you can also use other documents, like a W-2, as proof of Social Security)
- Texas driver’s licenses (to prove we were already licensed)
- Documents proving our new residential address (only two per person are required, but bring more in case the clerk decides one of them isn’t acceptable for some reason):
- Copy of insurance declaration pages for both vehicles, with our Florida address and both our names on them (as proof of our residential address)
- Escapees:HOME Florida verification letter from Escapees (as proof of residential address)
- Copy of Escapees:HOME Florida agreement (as proof of residential address)
- Completed & signed Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles Form 71120 (Certification of Address) (one for each of us)
- Florida liability insurance cards for both vehicles
- Original Texas certificates of title to both vehicles (surrendered when we received our new titles)
- Completed & signed Florida DMV Form 82042 (VIN affidavit) for each vehicle
- Completed but unsigned Sumter County, Florida Declaration of Domicile form (must be signed before a notary in Florida)
Because our new address is in Sumter County, we went there to do the paperwork. (Sumter County is a largely rural area, about an hour from Orlando, an hour from Tampa, and pretty much an hour from anywhere else in the state, too.) Our best flight options were to Tampa, so we stayed the night in a hotel there, and headed for the tax collector’s office in Bushnell the next morning.
In Florida, the tax collector’s office is a one-stop-shop for driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations and voter registrations. The ladies clerks in the tax collector’s office were accustomed to Escapees changing their domiciles to Florida. Thanks to the two resources I mentioned above, we had all the correct documents with us. About an hour later, after a vision test, answering a few legally required questions (no, we’ve never been judged mentally incompetent, have not been convicted of a felony, etc.), and handing over some cash, we walked out with our new license plates, new Florida driver’s licenses–the actual plastic cards, made on the spot, not a paper temporary license like Texas and most other states give you–new certificates of title for both vehicles (again, originals, although this costs $7.50 per vehicle rather than having them mailed, which is free), and as registered voters.
We then went next door to the property appraiser’s office, where we had our Declaration of Domicile form notarized, and then across the street to the county clerk’s office to file that document. The county clerk representative saw our address and volunteered, “do you want the filed document sent back to you here, or in Livingston?” They all understood exactly what we were doing, and they’re quite happy to have all the new Floridians!
And with that, we were done! Total time was about 60 minutes, start to finish. After a quick lunch, we headed over to the Escapees Sumter Oaks RV Park to see our new “home”, meet a few folks there, and take a photo of Florida’s newest residents.
What our domicile change cost, and what we’ll save
The costs involved with our change of domicile were as follows:
- Travel for two people (airfare, hotel, rental car, gas, meals, airport parking): $884
- Governmental fees totaling $543:
- New driver’s licenses (2): $108.50 (one-time cost)
- New vehicle titles (2): $191.50 (one-time cost)
- Truck registration: $143.10 (good for 12 months)
- RV registration: $89.70 (good for 17 months, because my May birthday is the expiration date)
- Filing fee for Declaration of Domicile: $10.00 (one-time cost)
So the total up-front cost of our domicile change was $1,426, of which $1,194 was one-time costs.
But here’s what we will save:
- Health insurance: $5,136/year compared to our current COBRA payment
- RV insurance: $713/year
- Vehicle registrations: $57/year
That makes our total annual savings $5,906, even before we take into account the intangible benefit of peace of mind (and possible enormous financial advantage) of having decent health insurance. Those savings will cover the up-front costs of changing our domicile in about 2 1/2 months. So economically as well as practically, this decision was a no-brainer.
Things we learned
If you’re an RVer thinking about changing your domicile to Florida, here are a few minor things we learned in the process that aren’t covered in the resources linked above.
- We hit up a couple ATMs to bring a wad of cash to the tax collector’s office. But we didn’t have to do that; they also accept debit cards (with a flat $2.50 fee) and credit cards (with a stiffer fee of 2.5% of the charged amount). I would have preferred using our debit card to carrying that much cash around.
- As with any other time you get or renew your driver’s license, you’ll have to take a simple vision test. Bring your glasses or contacts if you wear them while driving.
- Unlike in Texas, where you’re legally required to have a non-commercial Class A or Class B driver’s license for larger rigs, there is no special license needed in Florida to drive an RV of any type. (Yippee! No driving test!)
- Most Florida vehicle registrations renew on your birthday (they prorate the fees for the first partial year), but registrations on larger trailers renew at the end of the twelfth month after the original registration date. So our truck and our fifth wheel now have different registration renewal dates–a little odd, but not a big deal since we’ll get reminders and can renew online.
- Florida driver’s license numbers are a long series of 17 letters, numbers and dashes. So much for the easy-to-memorize, eight digit long Texas driver’s license number I’ve had for the last 40 years!
Although reasonable people can disagree on how to fix the United States’ current health insurance system, I think everyone agrees that it’s a crazy mess. We are incredibly grateful for the safety net provided by the Affordable Care Act for us and the millions of other Americans with pre-existing conditions and without employer-sponsored group coverage. But the fact that just by changing our state of domicile, we were able to radically change the insurance options available to us is a little silly, don’t you think? There has to be a better and saner way.
Until then, however, we full-time RVers have a unique opportunity–to shop other states for better insurance options–that isn’t available to owners of traditional houses. If you’re a full-timer, don’t be afraid to change your domicile if necessary to get the coverage you need and can afford. The process is a little complicated and arcane, but not all that hard. And there are plenty of resources online, as well as people like us who have done it, who are willing to help guide you.