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Snowbirds: take heed before taking flight

By Kathy Bockus, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

Taking steps to ensure your travel, home and auto insurance coverage is sufficient can contribute greatly to worry-free extended stays in the United States, says Dawn Marchand, vice-president of marketing, product and direct distribution of Toronto-based Lawyers Financial.

Marchand offers some helpful hints for snowbirds — or those thinking about joining the flock — when buying travel insurance.

She suggests asking whether there are any rules pertaining to pre-existing medical conditions and if there are any exclusions in the policy.

"It's very important to disclose any conditions up front and find out what the rules are," Marchand tells AdvocateDaily.com. "It doesn't do any good not to tell the insurer because they're going to find out at claims time."

She urges snowbirds to inquire about repatriation coverage and what it addresses — whether it covers travel back to Canada for you, your companion or someone who must be assigned to travel with you, and the method of travel — by coach or business class.

"Does it cover an emergency flight if you need it?" asks Marchand.

She advises travellers taking their own vehicles to check whether their car insurance has an out-of-country provision and to make note of the duration. They should also make sure they understand what it covers.

Regarding rental vehicles, Marchand says travel provisions in regular vehicle insurance could save snowbirds money since rental agencies can charge between $10 and $20 a day for insurance.

She adds that snowbirds should also read through their home insurance policies since many require someone to check the home every seven days.

Marchand says rented or leased accommodations may require insurance coverage for the duration of the stay.

She also advises travellers to inform themselves about the length of time Canadians can spend in the United States, noting there are two separate formulas with which Canadians must comply — one for immigration and one for U.S. taxation.

American immigration laws dictate Canadians cannot spend more than 180 days of a 365-day period in the United States, Marchand notes.

"If you go for the weekend, and four months later plan to spend six months, you could find yourself outside the law,” she says.

The U.S. tax rule is simple, says Marchand. "If you don't want to file any forms with the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], it's best to play it safe by ensuring you don't spend more than 120 days in a calendar year in the United States to be considered an American resident for tax purposes.

"This is a guideline only. If you plan to spend a significant amount of time in the U.S., you should consult with a tax advisor for specifics."

Since most snowbirds tend to be older, Marchand says it might be a good idea to do a little "pre-investigation" of what medical resources are available in the area where you will travel — just in case.

"Make sure you have an updated list of medications, and your doctor's name," she says. "Take it with you, but also leave a copy — along with a copy of your insurance coverage — with someone at home."

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