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I'm writing a work of fiction.

Imagine a remote wilderness location in the US, during contemporary times. There is a self-sufficient community living out a farming lifestyle and relying on 19th Century technology (i.e. no internal combustion engines, electricity, internet, phone, etc.). These people want to live completely off-the grid. They don't want any contact with our modern society.

It would be a huge distraction to future readers if it turns out that their homestead is obviously illegal, so I'm working on a list of all the things the founders of the community would have needed to put in place.

  1. They, or at least one of them, is the legal owner of all the land they use.
  2. They have set up a bank account with a significant endowment of [legally earned] money. From this, an escrow account pays their property taxes and an outside accountant has been retained to pay income taxes for any gains on their endowment.
  3. None of the other people within their community have paying jobs or earn an income, so they do not need to file income taxes.
  4. All the community members are US citizens with no criminal records, outstanding warrants, etc.
  5. The community is located in a state where it is legal to possess and use firearms.

Are there any other laws that this community should take into consideration before leaving our modern world?

Relatedly (and I can edit the question if these last two wonders make the question too broad)...

  1. Do they need to report marriages/births/deaths to anyone?
  2. Must there be public access (i.e. roads) to their community dwellings?

Again, I am not writing a "legal" thriller, and do not want questions about the legality of their existence to enter the plot. Just hoping someone can help me avoid obvious pitfalls!

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Pat W.
    Oct 29, 2023 at 12:51

5 Answers 5

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Just because they don't use cash, doesn't mean they don't have income. Even if they have a barter economy, barter income is taxable. If Ebenezer gives Zachariah a dozen chickens to build a cowshed, Zachariah needs to include the fair market value of those chickens (in dollars) in his taxable income. If his income exceeds the minimum filing limits, he must file a tax return and pay taxes like anyone else.

And of course, the IRS and/or state income tax authority only accepts payment in dollars, not chickens. So Zachariah is either going to have to continually draw down his share of the endowment to pay his taxes, or else trade with the outside world to get some cash.

Similarly, Ebenezer may need to file a 1099 to report the payment. If Zachariah is subject to backup withholding, then Ebenezer needs to withhold the appropriate percentage from the payment and remit it to the IRS, in cash.

If they employ each other - let's say Nahum works as a laborer on Ebenezer's farm - then Ebenezer needs to pay the equivalent of the legal minimum wage, and withhold income and payroll taxes which must likewise be remitted to the IRS in cash. He'll also need to comply with labor laws on work hours, workplace safety, etc, though some of them may not apply to employers with a very small number of employees.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Oct 28, 2023 at 10:27
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This might be too broad to answer in the Stack Exchange format, but I'll give it a start, making this answer a community wiki for anyone to add on to. Obviously there's a long list of criminal actions that everybody must refrain from, but this question is concerned with obligations to act rather than prohibitions.

The laws that impose obligations on the community members to act include:

  • child welfare laws, including the reporting of abuse
  • disposing of dead bodies in a manner consistent with regulations
  • environmental laws
  • mandatory education, including requirement to notify the state of a homeschooling plan
  • responding to the census
  • compliance with building codes and zoning regulations
  • Jury duty
  • Registering births, deaths, and marriages
  • Registering for the draft (at various times in US history)
  • Minimum wage laws
  • Anti-discrimination laws
  • Income and sales tax (even if paid by barter)
  • Social security (unless exempted)
  • Animal welfare laws
  • Mandatory vaccination
  • Local agency governance and elections -- you're either all or part of a city or county and those have to comply with state regulations about being governments. And those entities are responsible for enforcing -- or neglecting -- many of the above laws.
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    There are a few news articles about Amish leaving NY that hits a lot of these topics, particularly building code related stuff, smoke detectors, septic systems, permits, etc. I guess fishing licenses could fall under environmental.
    – rtaft
    Oct 26, 2023 at 18:25
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    While in theory everyone living in the US is required to respond to the census, in practice compliance is far from 100%, and the Census bureau authorizes using trustworthy third-party proxy information (i.e. landlords or neighbors) if people do not respond, on the theory that any verifiable data is better than none. Source: Was Census enumerator.
    – arp
    Oct 26, 2023 at 22:47
  • @Mazura It's not illegal, but you have to pay a penalty on your income taxes. Republicans attempted to repeal this penalty, but failed on procedural grounds because it could not be included in a budget reconciliation bill. However, what could be included was reducing the 'penalty' to $0... so that's exactly what they did. So, you now have to 'pay' a $0 penalty if you don't have health insurance.
    – reirab
    Oct 27, 2023 at 14:43
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    @ReinstateMonica3167040 That was the 5th Circuit. The Supreme Court reversed it for lack of standing.
    – reirab
    Oct 27, 2023 at 19:37
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There are few truly compulsory actions required of US citizens, but there are a great number of conditional requirements, and of course there are many criminal and civil laws governing daily life. Since you have stipulated land ownership in your scenario, this answer is in two sections.

Compulsory actions without any qualification:

  • Birth. Registration of live birth is required by every state. Hospitals facilitate this, but the ultimate responsibility is with the parents to register births with the county court.
  • Military service. All male citizens must register with the Selective Service from age 18. If drafted, men must serve.
  • Education. Some form of schooling is required in every state. Vaccination is usually a requirement to attend public and private school, but some states require child vaccination universally. In some states, vaccination is optional for the home-schooled.
  • Taxes. Income tax filings are compulsory only if taxes are owed. (This means that registering for a Tax ID or Social Security number is not technically required unless your income rises to a level that causes you to owe income tax to the state or federal government.) Sales taxes are normally paid by sellers, but if not collected by sellers, must be paid by buyers.
  • The census. Federal law requires every citizen to respond to the census, though in practice, many do not respond and suffer no consequence.
  • Submission to courts. Any court summons or court order must be followed including for jury duty, although registering for jury duty itself is not required by every state.
  • Death. Under state laws, deaths must be reported by whoever is in attendance or whoever discovers a person has died.

Conditional on land ownership:

  • Accurate records of land transactions must be recorded with the county, and recording taxes and fees paid.
  • Each time land is platted (split or combined with other land plats) there are requirements for surveying and recording the land boundary, and typically a street address is assigned by the US Postal Service.
  • Property taxes must be paid in states that collect them.
  • Numerous laws specify what may be built on land according to zoning, how structures must be built and maintained, how land is to be used, and the permitting process in each county.

I exclude the bulk of criminal and civil laws from this answer, even though every citizen must be subject to the sovereign law, since it is generally possible to avoid running afoul of these laws by simply doing nothing and remaining on your own land minding your own business.

However, in your scenario you are basically imagining a commune. It won't be practical for the commune to exist on blank, undeveloped land without any economic activity. For a commune to remain completely isolated with no external trade would be extremely difficult in order to not revert to an extremely primitive lifestyle. And even hunting and fishing for subsistence has to be licensed and/or permitted in every state.

A 'rogue' subsistence farm of any size that operates completely without county oversight, once discovered, would be quickly shut down anywhere in the United States. Once your commune starts farming, or operating businesses on their land, building housing, drilling wells, buying and selling, etc. they will be active participants in the society of the county where they are, and it will not be possible to remain totally isolated. The 'minimum requirements' for existing and remaining in compliance with the laws will greatly increase, particularly if the commune operates an agri-business. For example, livestock has to be certified to be cared for and disease-free, dwellings and barns must be permitted and inspected, selling produce is regulated, and property taxes have to be paid annually in most states.

So the above list is basically a minimum list of legal requirements just for a US citizen to be born, keep breathing and die. How people live brings different legal requirements into their lives, but always many more than just this list.

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    All of these requirements are imposed without regard to citizenship (including responding to the census). Then again, despite using the word "citizens," the question is really asking about requirements applying to US residents.
    – phoog
    Oct 26, 2023 at 9:44
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If you haven't decided on a state yet, have a look at New Hampshire. The Free State Project selected New Hampshire in 2003 at the state with the fewest restrictions on living free in a libertarian lifestyle.

No income tax, no sales tax, homeschooling is commonplace, and firearm laws generally follow Federal law and don't impose state restrictions such as registration or background checks on private transfers. Open or concealed carry without a license if qualified to own a firearm under federal law.

There are unincorporated areas up north with no building codes nor building permits required. Vaccine exemptions are easy too.

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    Note that a lack of state taxes doesn't mean that there aren't federal income, payroll, and excise taxes that are owed.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 25, 2023 at 23:15
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Note that at least in the past some states had a freehold option on property. When you set it up you prepay property taxes based on your life expectancy then never again until it's transferred. The system here was removed some years back (but existing freeholds are honored) so I haven't kept up on all the details.

Perhaps the community negotiated such an agreement with the tax authorities when it was created.

This will not solve the biggest tax problem, though: Federal income tax & social security. I believe this is a showstopper for your scenario.

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  • Where is “here”? And what would happen when it again got transferred? Oct 28, 2023 at 15:25
  • "Here" is Nevada, USA--the location wasn't important, only the system. I have no idea how widespread it is or was. And if it's transferred to anyone else it goes back to normal property tax. Oct 29, 2023 at 3:22

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