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Case Could Have Implications For Snowbirds

As the weather gets colder, there are more than a few Ohioans who are right now planning their annual extended stays in Florida or other warm climates.A complicated case out of the Ohio Supreme Court  hopes to answer the question where a person who has two homes actually lives. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler explains.

The case comes from 2008 in Geauga County, when Robert Schill accidentally hit and killed a bicyclist. The bicyclist’s widow sued for wrongful death. Schill had claimed that he was covered by his father’s umbrella insurance policy for resident relatives, defined as people with the same domicile. Robert Schill owns a home in Ohio, and his father stays there for long periods while dealing with the business he owns here. But his father pays taxes and votes based on the address of the home he shares with his wife in Florida. So the question is: where is Robert Schill’s father’s legal domicile – Ohio or Florida? Shawn Maestle argued for the insurance company, and told Justice Terrence O’Donnell this is a very important question.

Maestle: “Where you may vote was determined by your domicile. Where your children go to school is determined by the parents’ domicile. Where you pay taxes is determined by your domicile. Where individuals get divorced is determined by your domicile.”

O’Donnell: “How many domiciles does an individual have?”

Maestle: “One.”

And Maestle argued that since Schill’s father didn’t own a house in Ohio but lived with his wife in Florida, it’s apparent that his intent is to return to Florida, so Florida is his domicile. And Maestle said Robert Schill has a home in Ohio and hasn’t been to Florida in 20 years, so obviously Robert isn’t a resident relative and can’t be covered. But the attorney for the bicyclist’s widow, Steven Keefe, said Schill’s father is trying to have it both ways – to claim a domicile in Florida for tax purposes but to spend much of his time in Ohio with his son and his business.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wondered to Keefe about the many Ohioans who go back and forth between Ohio and homes in another state. “They’re going to be advised to take your assets and take your businesses and relocate out of Ohio. That’s the end result of this policy that has been put forth by the 8th District Court of Appeals.” “I don’t believe that to be the case. What the Court of Appeals says – it’s not subjective intent alone. It’s been an objective intent standard – intent plus conduct.”

Keefe said Schill’s father spends a large amount of time in Ohio, living in the house that his son owns – so the umbrella policy covers the son. And Keefe said that because there are a lot of implications to where people are domiciled, they can’t just change their domiciles on a whim.

“To change domicile, they have to follow the rule, which is abandoning the first one with no intent to return to it.”

Maestle admitted that a law passed after Schill’s father changed his domicile requires people who do that file an affidavit.

“I believe that is, respectfully, unconstitutional, because it would mandate that every citizen in the United States be deemed a domicile of Ohio unless they file an affidavit with Ohio Secretary of State or Department of Taxation.”

And Maestle said the decision in this case could affect every domicile question the state of Ohio has.