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Lawyers’ Corner: Domicile in Dahlmann v Geico

The Michigan No-Fault Act treats Michigan residents and non-residents differently. But sometimes accidents happen in the gray areas – while a party is in the process of moving. A recent unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals decision provides guidance to judges and lawyers alike to determining whether a Michigan domicile exists.

How long does a person have to be in Michigan before she becomes a resident, requiring a Michigan no-fault insurance policy? In Dahlmann v Geico General Ins Co, the Michigan Court of Appeals looked at the difference between residence and domicile in deciding whether a new arrival qualified as a Michigan resident.

Michelle Dahlmann lived in Virginia from 2009 until 2012 while her husband was in the navy. When he was deployed for seven to nine months in 2012, she took the opportunity to pick up the kids and tour the country visiting family. She visited her mother-in-law in Thomson, Gorgia, her mother in Atlanta, Georgia, and her sister in Casper, Wyoming before arriving in Lansing, Michigan around January 13, 2013.

Using her power of attorney, Dahlmann rented an apartment in her husband’s name. She intended to stay in Michigan until her husband returned and got his new orders – which could have taken a few weeks or more. Then she expected to sublease the apartment to her brother and follow her husband to his new assignment.

But before any of that could happen, Dahlmann was injured by a motor vehicle. While she was stopped at a traffic light, a nearby driver, Gregory Romig, got out of his car and took out his road rage on her window and door, denting it. Romig got in his vehicle to drive away, and Dahlmann got out of her car to record his license plate. But as Romig pulled away, he hit her with his car, injuring her.

The question for the trial court was whether Dahlmann’s damages should be paid for by her Virginia insurance company, Geico, or the driver’s insurance, Frankenmuth Mutual Ins Co. The deciding factor turned on whether Geico was required to pay for her injuries as an “out-of-state” resident under MCL 500.3163. If she was a Virginia resident, Geico would have to pay. But if she had changed her domicile to Michigan, Geico would be off the hook.

Deciding Domicile of Michigan Residents

Michigan residents must carry no-fault insurance. Non-residents are exempt from this requirement if the vehicle is registered elsewhere until the vehicle is in Michigan for an aggregate of 30 days. Then the Michigan No-Fault Act’s penalties kick in – preventing a vehicle owner from collecting PIP benefits or Third Party damages.

The Michigan Supreme Court has said that “residence” and “domicile” are two different things.  In Grange Ins Co of Mich v Lawrence, the Court said:

“For over 165 years, Michigan courts have defined ‘domicile’ to mean the place where a person has his true, fixed, permanent home, and principal establishment, and to which, whenever he is absent, he has the intention of returning.”

A person can only have one domicile, and it remains the same until a person actively changes it. By contrast, a “residence” is “any place of abode or dwelling, however temporary it might be.”

An “out-of-state resident” under the no-fault act means “a person who is domiciled in a state other than Michigan.” So the question for the court was whether Dahlmann had established her domicile in Michigan, not just her residence.

In deciding that question, the court listed several factors from two cases to be considered:

  • The subjective intent to remain in the residence permanently or at least indefinitely;
  • The formality of the relationship between a person and the household;
  • Whether the place is in the same household or on the same premises;
  • Whether the person has another place of lodging;
  • Whether the person has changed her mailing address;
  • Where the person’s possessions are;
  • Where the person maintains her driver’s license;
  • Whether a room is maintained in another home; and
  • Whether the person is dependent on another person (like a parent).

Of all those factors, the court considered one the most: Dahlmann’s subjective intent to remain in Michigan. It noted that she had taken several steps to change her domicile away from her Virginia residence, but that doesn’t itself establish a new domicile in a particular location. That was covered by the fact that Dahlmann intended to remain in Michigan for an undetermined amount of time – until her husband’s deployment ended. Since that was true, Dahlmann was a Michigan resident and Geico was off the hook.

Representing People in Transition

Whether your client is a college student, a migrant worker, or a new transplant, domicile is going to be a key question in your no-fault claim. Take the time to get specific with your client. Know their living arrangements and their future intent before you file your claims. That way, you can file the complaint against the right insurance company based on your client’s domicile, not just their residence.

David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He has been handling tough no-fault claims for over 20 years. If your client has a challenging auto accident case, contact Christensen Law today for referral.