Sometimes you will be asked to specify the place of domicile—also called legal residency—of yourself or someone you know for legal purposes. When a person has lived in only one place for a long time, it’s easy to figure out his or her domicile. However, when someone has traveled a lot, has multiple homes, is in the military, is a minor, or is mentally incompetent, this can get a little tricky to figure out. So here’s some help!
“Domicile” and “legal residency” mean the same thing and are different than merely being a “resident” of a place. A person is a resident of wherever they live, even if temporarily. A person can reside in two places at once, for instance, if they travel between their house in the city and their country house. However, a person’s “domicile” or “legal residency” can only be in one place.
While states differ somewhat in how they define the place of domicile, the general rule of thumb can be stated as follows: the domicile is the place a person regards as his or her true home, and where they maintain the most economic, social, political, and family ties. Strong indicators of domicile include wherever a person pays taxes, votes, has a driver’s license, and lives most the year.
Sometimes a person’s career or studies require them to move to another place for an extended period of time. Military personnel and college students are the most common examples. Figuring out their domicile often requires looking at all the surrounding circumstances, including the person’s intent.
Say Jennifer was born and raised in Virginia and decides to join the Navy. While Jennifer is in boot camp in Illinois for a year she will likely still be considered a legal resident of Virginia so long as her stay in Illinois is only temporary and she intends to travel elsewhere after boot camp. If Jennifer then gets stationed in Georgia but still expects to return Virginia right after her service is finished in two years, Jennifer still will likely be considered domiciled in Virginia.
Now, instead, pretend Jennifer gets married and decides to start a family and stay in Georgia for a while. If she only has a vague intent to “someday return to Virginia” but intends to stay in Georgia for an indefinite amount of time, then she is now likely domiciled in Georgia. This is because Jennifer now has substantial ties to Georgia—she resides there most the year, has a family and career there, and has no present intent to return to Virginia in the near future.
Jennifer’s example would play out the same if she went to college instead of the Navy. She would still be a resident of her home state Virginia while going to college in Illinois. If she started working, paying taxes, and voting in Illinois, say in order to receive in-state tuition, then she would now be considered a resident of Illinois, even if she had some attenuated desire to return to Virginia one day.
The domicile of minors is usually straightforward and follows the domicile of their parent, legal guardian, or whoever’s custody they remain in most the time. If a minor splits time between divorced parents, often courts will have already determined which parent has primary custody of the child. This is usually the parent that the minor spends the majority of his or her time with.
With incompetent individuals, again the legal residency is normally determined by the domicile of the parents, legal guardian, or custodian. If the incompetent person has sufficient mental ability to form their own intent according to the court, that person may determine their own domicile.
Jackson is mentally incompetent but makes his wishes clear that he wants to move to Florida to live with his uncle. If Jackson moves to Florida to start a life there with no present intent to move again, then Florida will be considered Jackson’s place of domicile, regardless of whether Jackson has a legal guardian that is domiciled somewhere else.
As explained by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), when the place of domicile is not so clear-cut, courts usually consider domicile to be the place the person has the most ties with. Here are some factors that, while not always determinative, weigh on the answer:
If someone dies, whoever administers the deceased person’s estate in probate court will need to indicate the decedent’s domicile in a document called an affidavit of domicile.
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