New Policies & Procedures for 2010 VAB Hearings


Just when I think I know everything there is to know about property tax appeals, they go and change the rules on me again.  VAB season should be interesting this year, given all of the new policies and procedures promulgated by the Florida Department of Revenue and its infamous (and at times puzzling) 2010 Value Adjustment Board Training materials that are required reading for all VAB Special Magistrates in Florida.  Below is a quick summary of some interesting administrative changes that are included in the new Rules and the VAB Training materials.

Good Cause for Late VAB Petitions

The DOR has now included a definition of “good cause.”  According to Rule 12D-9.015(11)(a), “good cause” means the verifiable showing of extraordinary circumstances.  Examples given by the DOR include a personal, family or business crisis, or a physical or mental illness, infirmity or disability that would reasonably affect the petitioner’s ability to timely file, as well as miscommunications with the Board Clerk, Property Appraiser or their staff regarding the filing time.

Agents for Taxpayers

Rule 12D-9.018(3) clarifies that a taxpayer may be represented by anyone, including a family member, and that the agent need not be a licensed individual.  However, a petition filed by an unlicensed agent must be signed by the taxpayer or be accompanied by a written authorization from the taxpayer.

Rescheduling Hearings

Florida Statute 194.032(2) allows a petitioner to reschedule a hearing one time without good cause.  In my experience last year, some Value Adjustment Board Clerks interpreted this section as only allowing the petitioner to request one rescheduling, regardless of whether they had a conflict or other good cause.  Rule 12D-9.019 clarifies that a rescheduling for good cause shall not be treated as the one time rescheduling to which a petitioner has a right upon timely request under Fla. Stat. 194.032(2).  This Rule also clarifies that if a hearing is rescheduled, the deadlines for the exchange of evidence shall be computed from the new hearing date, if time permits.

Effect of Failure to Provide Income Data/Higgs v. Good

Higgs v. Good is, of course, the case that held that where a taxpayer refused to provide his income data to the Property Appraiser when the Property Appraiser was trying to prepare the tax roll, the taxpayer could not later use that data in an administrative or judicial challenge to their property tax assessment (yes, the case did expressly say “administrative or judicial”).  Thus, the DOR has created quite a stir by stating in its 2010 VAB Training materials that “the case of Higgs v. Good does not apply to proceedings of the value adjustment board.”

Note, however, that Fla. Stat.  194.034 still prohibits the VAB from accepting evidence if the Property Appraiser requested it from the petitioner in connection with the VAB proceeding and the petitioner had knowledge of it, but declined to provide it to the Property Appraiser.  If such a request is made by the Property Appraiser (and it always is), Rule 12D-9.020(8) deems the petitioner’s evidence timely if it is submitted at least 15 days before the hearing.  If submitted less than 15 days before the hearing, it is still considered timely if the VAB finds that it was provided a reasonable time before the hearing.

Order of Presentation of Evidence

Rule 12D-9.024(7) clarifies that the Property Appraiser should present their evidence first in a hearing involving a value dispute.  Presumably, the taxpayer would still present their evidence first in exemption and classification hearings.  However, if the parties agree, the Special Magistrates generally prefer for the Property Appraiser to state their reasons for denial of an exemption before the taxpayer presents their case.

Applicability of Rules of Evidence

Rule 12D-9.025(2)(a) provides that VAB proceedings are not to be controlled by strict rules of evidence and procedure.  However, while formal rules of evidence do not apply, fundamental due process shall be observed and shall govern the proceedings.  The VAB Training materials further state that the VABs must not apply strict standards of relevance or materiality in deciding whether to admit evidence into the record, and that any decisions to exclude evidence must not be arbitrary or unreasonable.

In practice, what this likely means is that the VABs should give the parties a bit of leeway when their evidence is challenged on relevance or materiality grounds.  However, parties should still be wary about relying on hearsay to prove their case (such as affidavits or appraisals by persons not present at the hearing).  The Rules specifically allow petitioners to notify the VAB on their petition that they do not intend to appear, but that they would like their evidence considered anyway. In such situations, Rule 9.024(11) states that the VAB must take into consideration the inability of the opposing party to cross-examine the non-appearing party in determining the sufficiency of the evidence.

Applicability of USPAP

Florida Statute 194.301 now requires the Property Appraiser to comply with “professionally accepted appraisal practices.”  Some (including me) had speculated that these “practices” could be construed to include the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice [“USPAP”].  Not so, however, as the DOR’s 2010 VAB Training materials have instructed the VABs and Special Magistrates that they are not authorized to determine whether a party is required to comply with USPAP or whether their evidence complies with USPAP.

The Eighth Factor (Costs of Sale)

Another issue that has many people scratching their heads is the DOR’s discussion of “the eighth criterion” in the VAB Training materials.  The materials seem to suggest that where the Property Appraiser has reported to the DOR on Form DR-493 a certain percentage adjustment for the eighth criterion of Fla. Stat. 193.011, but has not made such an adjustment to the petitioned property, the VAB should go ahead and make that adjustment.  Thus, it would seem that the DOR is advising the VABs to ensure that the same adjustment is made to all properties, regardless of the approach used to calculate the assessment and regardless of whether it would result in an assessment at less than fair market value.  I expect that the DOR will be receiving questions from many people about this, and hopefully further clarification will be forthcoming.

Working Waterfront Properties

The VAB Training materials clarify that, despite the legislature’s failure to pass implementing legislation, the constitutional provisions relating to working waterfront properties do apply in 2010, and the DOR anticipates issuing rules later in the summer of 2010.

Electronic Hearings

Finally, the new Rules allow for electronic hearings if the VAB approves of their use and the special magistrate agrees.  Procedures for the use of electronic hearings are set forth in Rule 12D-9.026.

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Effect of Gulf Oil Spill on Property Tax Assessments


As Floridians are bombarded by headlines portending 10-30% losses in property values due to the BP oil spill, many property owners are probably wondering how this will affect their property tax bills.  This article will explain how and when the oil spill could affect property tax assessments, current litigation regarding these issues, and Governor Crist’s latest Executive Order authorizing interim assessments for affected properties.

How will the oil spill affect my 2010 property tax assessment?

Unfortunately, your 2010 taxes will be based on the value of your property as of January 1, 2010, prior to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and the subsequent oil spill.  Thus, it is unlikely that Floridians will see any reduction of their 2010 assessments as a result of the oil spill until at least 2011.  Some eager class action lawyers have jumped the gun a bit by filing a class action lawsuit against the Property Appraisers of all affected counties, seeking an order requiring them to consider the effects of the oil spill in calculating the 2011 assessments.  However, since the Property Appraisers are already required by state law to consider any pretty much any conditions that affect the fair market value of a property, that lawsuit would appear to be a bit premature, to put it nicely.

What if my property value is negatively affected by the oil spill?

The Property Appraisers are required to consider such factors as the condition of the property, the present cash value of the property, and, for income-producing properties, the income from the property.  Thus, if sale prices of properties along the Gulf coast decline as a result of the oil spill, or if hotels see greater vacancies, those factors will influence the 2011 assessments.  The primary case regarding contaminated property in Florida is Gulf Coast Recycling Inc. v. Turner, in which the court affirmed the value adjustment board’s reduction of the value of an apartment complex to $100 where the evidence showed that the costs associated with the cleanup of the contaminated property exceeded the price that would be paid for the property.

Of course, in the case of an oil spill, the property may not actually be contaminated as of the assessment date, but may suffer a loss in value due to its proximity to the contaminated waters.  This is commonly referred to as a “stigma.”  While Florida has not directly addressed this issue, other state courts have acknowledged that a stigma factor can affect property even if the contaminants are removed, and that stigma may be considered in determining the property’s value for tax purposes.

Are the Property Appraisers required to make a reduction to properties affected by the oil spill?

While the Property Appraisers are required to assess all property at its fair market value as of January 1st, there is currently no specific requirement that they make a specified percentage reduction to assessments of property affected by the oil spill.  That said, last year the legislature passed a statute providing for special tax treatment for property affected by defective drywall.  Thus, it is always possible that we will see similar legislation for properties affected by the oil spill.

Didn’t the Governor issue an Executive Order regarding assessment of properties affected by the oil spill?

Today, Governor Crist issued Executive Order 10-169, which authorizes (but does not require) Property Appraisers in the 26 counties in which he has declared a state of emergency to provide “interim assessments” of any properties that may have suffered a loss in value due to the oil spill.  These interim assessments will not affect the property owners’ tax bills.  Rather, the purpose of the interim assessments would be to assist property owners with documenting the loss in value to their property so as to help substantiate their claims submitted to BP.

I am sure that the Property Appraisers are going to be a bit surprised by this Order, as it is generally not their constitutional duty to serve as expert witnesses in their constituents’ private lawsuits.  Also, as the Order is not mandatory, many property appraisers may choose not to provide this extra valuation service.  Thus, rather than relying on the county Property Appraisers to assist them with their claims, property owners would be wise to compile their own evidence of any diminution of value, especially if it can be attributed specifically to the oil spill.

How to Appeal the Denial of an Agricultural Classification


July 1st is the Property Appraisers’ deadline to notify land owners that they are denying their application for an agricultural classification.  Thus, this post will discuss common reasons for denial of an agricultural classification (sometimes referred to as a “greenbelt exemption” or “greenbelt classification”) and the procedures for appealing such a denial.

Why was my agricultural classification denied?

Probably the most common reason for an agricultural classification to be denied is the owner’s failure to file an application by the statutory deadline.  Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 193.461(3), an application for agricultural classification must be filed with the Property Appraiser by March 1st of the tax year for which the classification is sought.  Failure to file an application by March 1st constitutes a waiver of the classification privilege for that year.  If an application is filed after March 1st and the taxpayer demonstrates particular extenuating circumstances for the late filing, the Property Appraiser may go ahead and grant the classification.  However, if the Property Appraiser denies the classification, the taxpayer would need to file an appeal to the Value Adjustment Board.

Other than tardy applications, the most common reasons for denial of an agricultural classification are probably the size of the property and the failure of the owner or lessee to care for the land using accepted commercial agricultural practices.  To qualify for an agricultural classification, the property must be used primarily for bona fide agricultural purposes, which has been defined as “good faith commercial agricultural use of the land.”  This does not mean that the operation must be profitable, but it does mean that a parcel that is too small to be commercially viable or that is overgown with weeds will probably not qualify.

Qualifying for an agricultural classification also requires good communication between the owner and any lessees.  It is fairly common for an owner/developer to lease their land to a cattleman or farmer for a nominal amount in the hopes that the property will qualify for an agricultural classification while the owner waits to develop or re-sell the property.  However, if questions arise about the use of the property, the owner must ensure that the lessee promptly responds to any questions or document requests from the Property Appraiser’s office or the owner may be faced with a denial letter.

Appealing to the Value Adjustment Board

The most common way to appeal the denial of an agricultural classification is by filing a petition to the county Value Adjustment Board.  The petition, which can be found by clicking here, must be filed with the Clerk of the Value Adjustment Board (in the Clerk of Court’s office) no later than 30 days after the Property Appraiser mailed the notice of denial.  In small counties, the petition will be heard before the full Value Adjustment Board, which consists of two members of the county commission, one school board member, and two citizen members.  In larger counties, the petition will be heard by an attorney Special Magistrate, whose recommendations will be either approved or rejected by the full VAB.  Taxpayers who do not prevail before the VAB may take a further appeal to the local circuit court, but that appeal must be filed within 60 days of the VAB decision.

Appealing Directly to the Circuit Court

Taxpayers also have the option of taking their dispute directly to circuit court, without going before the VAB.  A circuit court action to challenge the denial of an agricultural classification must be filed within 60 days of the certification of the tax roll by the Property Appraiser.  Also, in order to file a circuit court action, the taxpayer must pay the taxes in full, or at least pay the amount they admit in good faith to be owning (the amount they would owe if they were granted the agricultural classification).  Failure to pay the property taxes for the year in dispute and any subsequent years will likely result in dismissal of the case for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to Fla. Stat. 194.171.

How to Appeal the Denial of a Homestead Exemption


In Florida, Property Appraisers who are planning to deny a taxpayer’s application for homestead exemption must notify the taxpayer of their  decision on or before July 1st.  Thus, many people will soon be receiving an unpleasant surprise in the mail.  This post will address common reasons for being denied a homestead exemption and the procedures for appealing the denial of a homestead exemption.

Why was my homestead exemption application denied?

The single most common reason for a homestead exemption application to be denied is that it was not filed by the statutory deadline.  Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 196.011, an application for a homestead exemption must be filed by March 1st of the tax year for which the exemption is sought.  Failure to file an application by March 1st constitutes a waiver of the exemption privilege for that year.  If an application is filed after March 1st and the petitioner demonstrates extenuating circumstances for the tardy application, the Property Appraiser may go ahead and grant the exemption.  However, if the Property Appraiser denies the exemption, the taxpayer would need to file an appeal to the Value Adjustment Board, as further discussed in my blog post on How to File a Late Homestead Exemption Application.

If the application was timely filed, then the exemption was most likely denied because the Property Appraiser determined that the taxpayer did not meet the requirements for a homestead exemption.  For example, the taxpayer may not have had the requisite interest in the property, or the Property Appraiser’s investigation may have indicated that the property was not the applicant’s permanent residence as of January 1st.  For more information on the substantive legal requirements for a homestead exemption, see my blog post on Qualifying for a Florida Homestead Exemption.

Notice of Denial

If a Property Appraiser intends to deny a taxpayer’s application for homestead exemption, the notice must be sent out no later than July 1st, and it must be either hand-delivered or sent by registered mail to the post office address given by the applicant.  See Fla. Stat. 196.151.  Beginning in 2009, a new statute, Fla. Stat. 196.193(5)(b), requires notices of denial of exemptions to specifically state the legal and factual basis for the Property Appraiser’s decision, and to be drafted so that a reasonable person could understand the specific facts about the applicant or their use of the property which caused the denial.  A notice that fails to meet those requirements is void.  However, some counties contend that this statute does not apply to homestead exemptions, and that issue has not yet been resolved by the courts.

Appealing to the Value Adjustment Board

The most common way to appeal the denial of a homestead exemption is by filing a petition to the county Value Adjustment Board.  The petitions, which can be found by clicking here, must be filed with the Clerk of the Value Adjustment Board (in the Clerk of Court’s office) no later than 30 days after the Property Appraiser mailed the notice of denial.  See Fla. Stat. 194.011(3)(d). In small counties, the petition will be heard before the full Value Adjustment Board, which consists of two members of the county commission, one school board member and two citizen members.  In larger counties, the petition will be heard before an attorney Special Magistrate, whose recommendation will be either approved or rejected by the full VAB.  Taxpayers who do not prevail before the VAB may take a further appeal to the circuit court, but that appeal must be filed within 15 days of the VAB decision.

Appealing Directly to the Circuit Court

Taxpayers also have the option of taking their dispute directly to circuit court, without going before the VAB.  A circuit court action to challenge the denial of a homestead exemption must be filed within 60 days of the certification of the tax roll by the Property Appraiser.  Also, in order to file a circuit court action, the taxpayer must pay the taxes in full, or at least pay the amount they admit, in good faith, to be owing.  Failure to pay the property taxes for the year in dispute and any subsequent years will likely result in the case being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to Fla. Stat. 194.171.

Liens for Back Taxes

Taking this issue a step further, if a property owner had already been receiving a homestead exemption, but the Property Appraiser determines that they should not have been receiving the exemption, the taxpayer will be required by Fla. Stat. 196.161 to pay back taxes, plus a 50% penalty and 15% interest.  If the taxpayer fails to pay the back taxes within 30 days of receiving such a notice from the Property  Appraiser, the Property Appraiser can record a tax lien on all of the taxpayer’s property in the state.   Thus, retroactive removal of a homestead exemption can be very costly.  Also, as the courts have not yet resolved the question of whether taxpayers can bring back tax and tax lien issues before the VAB or whether they must file an action in circuit court, any taxpayer in this situation should consult an attorney as to how to proceed and whether it would be beneficial to file an action in circuit court.

Property Tax Reductions for Chinese Drywall


Beginning in 2010, owners of property affected by defective Chinese drywall will be entitled to significant property tax reductions.  In prior years, the treatment of property affected by defective drywall was up to the discretion of the individual county property appraisers.  However, Florida Statute 193.1552, which takes effect this year, requires county property appraisers to consider the impact of defective drywall on single family homes and, in some cases, to reduce the assessed value of the building to $0.

Essentially, the new statute requires Property Appraisers to consider the effect of drywall that contains elevated levels of elemental sulfur that results in corrosion of certain metals if the building need remediation to bring it up to current building standards.  If the building cannot be used for its intended purpose without remediation or repair, the Property Appraiser must assess the value of the building at $0.  This statute only applies to single family residential property, and it only applies if the owner was unaware of the presence of defective drywall at the time of purchase.

The statute also clarifies that an owner who vacates the property for the purpose of repairing the defective drywall will not be considered to have abandoned their homestead unless they establish a new homestead elsewhere.

Taking a Property Tax Dispute to Court


With the Value Adjustment Board process winding down in most Florida counties, many taxpayers and some Property Appraisers are now contemplating whether to take the next step of filing a lawsuit in circuit court.  This post will explain the deadlines and requirements for filing a circuit court action, the effect of the VAB proceeding in court cases, and the difference between a VAB and court proceeding.

Deadline to File a Circuit Court Action

The timeframe to file a circuit court action in a property tax or exemption dispute is very short and, because the deadlines are jurisdictional, failure to file an action by the statutory deadline will result in permanent dismissal of your case.  Thus, anyone who is contemplating appealing a VAB decision to the circuit court is encouraged to consult with an attorney as soon as possible after receiving their VAB decision.

Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 194.171, those taxpayers who choose not to file a VAB petition must file their circuit court actions no later than 60 days after the certification of the tax roll, which generally occurs around mid-October in many counties.  Taxpayers who file a VAB petition, but are unsatisfied with the outcome can file an appeal of the VAB decision to the circuit court, but those appeals must be filed within 60 days of the date that the VAB renders its decision.  Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 196.151, an appeal of a VAB decision denying a homestead exemption must be filed within 15 days of the date that the VAB decision is rendered.

The question of when a VAB decision is “rendered” is a bit more complicated now that the Record of Decision forms contain two signature lines – one for the Chairman of the VAB, and another for the Clerk to sign when the decision is mailed.  At least one judge has indicated that he believes the 60 day deadline begins running on the date that the VAB Chairman signs the Record of Decision, even if the decision is mailed by the Clerk on a later date.  Thus, it would be wise to err on the side of filing the lawsuit within 60 days of the date the decision is signed by the VAB Chairman.

Of course, the county Property Appraisers also have the option of appealing an unfavorable VAB decision to circuit court.  While that situation is less common, if a Property Appraiser chooses to go that route, they must file an action against the taxpayer prior to extension of the tax roll or, if the tax roll was extended prior to completion of the VAB hearings, within 30 days of recertification.

Payment of Amount Admitted to be Owed

Prior to filing an action in circuit court, the taxpayer is also required to pay that year’s property taxes.   However, they have the option of paying their taxes in full or paying the amount that they admit in good faith to be owing.  As with the deadlines discussed above, this requirement is jurisdictional and failure to pay the taxes prior to filing the lawsuit will result in dismissal of the case.  In addition, it is imperative that the taxpayer continue to pay their taxes in a timely manner in future years while the lawsuit is pending, as the case may also be dismissed if any later years’ taxes become delinquent.

Effect of VAB Proceeding

Although referred to as an appeal of the VAB decision, a circuit court action in a property tax dispute is “de novo” – meaning that the parties will not be relying on the record created before the VAB, but rather will have the opportunity to present their case again, in full, before a circuit court judge.  Thus, regardless of how many procedural or evidentiary errors may have been committed by the VAB or the Special Magistrate, none of that matters once the case gets to circuit court.  That said, although the VAB decision is not dispositive and the parties are essentially getting a fresh start before the circuit court, it is important to note that the VAB proceedings are recorded.  Thus, it is certainly possible for one party to use the other parties’ recorded VAB testimony to impeach them at trial.

Lawsuits Against the VAB

Fla. Stat. 194.036 allows the Property Appraiser to sue the VAB for violations of the law if the Department of Revenue finds probable cause that a particular county VAB has consistently and continuously violated the intent of the law or administrative rules in its decisions.  Once the Department makes such a finding, the Property Appraiser has 20 days to file a lawsuit against the VAB.  If the Property Appraiser prevails, they are entitled to reversal of the VAB’s decisions, as well as an injunction against further violations of the law.

The Florida statutes do not provide a mechanism for an aggrieved taxpayer to sue the VAB over violations of the law and, although some taxpayers have filed such suits anyway, I have not seen any that were successful, as the courts tend to find that the taxpayer’s remedy is to sue the Property Appraiser, as discussed above.  However, the Department of Revenue’s VAB training materials indicate that written complaints alleging noncompliance with the law by the VAB, Special Magistrates, Clerk or parties should be sent to the VAB Attorney, with a copy to the Department of Revenue.

One Final Caveat . . .

Unlike a VAB hearing, where the rules of evidence are somewhat lax, litigants in circuit court are expected to abide by all of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence.  Moreover, the circuit courts are not bound by the various instructive materials issued by the Department of Revenue and the VABs.  Rather, they are free to interpret the tax statutes as they see fit.  Given the many different opinions as to how the new burden of proof and other procedural matters should be applied, it is entirely possible that the circuit courts could apply the new statutes very differently than the VABs.

Separate Homestead Exemptions for Married Couples


UPDATE:  Since the below article was written, the Second District Court of Appeal has issued an opinion in the Pasco County Wells v. Haldeos case.  The 2nd District rejected the Property Appraiser’s contention that a married couple can never receive separate homestead exemptions, and instead held that “in the unique circumstances presented in this case, where the husband and wife have established two separate permanent residences in good faith and have no financial connection with and do not provide benefits, income, or support to each other, each may be granted a homestead exemption if they otherwise qualify.”

*     *     *

I’ve been procrastinating about addressing this topic for about a year now, because I keep thinking that one of these days the courts will issue a decision that finally puts this issue to rest.  But alas, as that hasn’t happened yet, I think it’s time to bite the bullet and go ahead and offer up a summary of what little guidance we do have on the question of whether and when a married couple can receive homestead exemptions on two separate properties.

Exemptions on Jointly-Owned Property

First, let’s address the easier matter of whether a person can receive a homestead exemption on their Florida residence if they or their spouse are already receiving an exemption on property in another state that is owned jointly.  The answer to that question is “no.”  Fla. Stat. 196.031(6) provides that a person who is receiving or claiming the benefit of an ad valorem tax exemption in another state where permanent residency is required as a basis for the granting of that ad valorem tax exemption or tax credit is not entitled to a Florida homestead exemption.  Thus, if your spouse is receiving a residency-based tax exemption or tax credit in Michigan and your name is on the title to that property, you will probably be denied a homestead exemption on your Florida property.

“But what if I am not on the title to my spouse’s homestead property?”, you ask.  Ah, that’s where it gets tricky.  Some counties will use the above provision as a basis for denying you a Florida homestead exemption because they believe that, even if you are not on the title to the property, because you are married, you are indirecly benefiting from your spouse’s out-of-state homestead exemption.  In the remaining counties, you may have a chance, but you still face one more obstacle – the “family unit” provision of the Florida Constitution.

“One Exemption Per Family Unit” Limitation

Since 1968, the Florida Constitution has provided that “not more than one [homestead] exemption shall be allowed any individual or family unit or with respect to any residential unit.”  When the Constitution was being adopted, the Constitutional Revision Commission originally proposed that the language limit the homestead exemption to “one per individual or married couple,” but the final version uses the phrase “family unit.”  Thus, the Property Appraisers and taxpayers of Florida have been forced to speculate as to what kind of relationship or living arrangement constitutes a family unit.  This issue has not been addressed by any appellate courts, but there is persuasive authority from the Attorney General’s office and several Florida trial courts that offer some guidance as to whether and when a married couple can claim separate homestead exemptions.

Attorney General Opinions

In response to questions from Florida Property Appraisers, the Florida Attorney General has issued several advisory opinions, which are not binding on the Property Appraisers, but are certainly given some weight.  In Attorney General Opinions 075-146 and 2005-60, the Attorney General interpreted the constitutional provision as allowing a husband and wife to establish separate family units, and thus receive separate homestead exemptions.  While the Attorney General did not provide any suggested criteria, he indicated that the Property Appraiser should consider the financial interdependence of the couple, and that if one spouse was maintaining the home of the other, they would probably not be considered separate family units.

Trial Court Cases

Although no appellate courts have issued a decision on this issue, several trial courts have weighed in.  In Pasco County, a circuit court judge disagreed with the Property Appraiser’s contention that a married couple automatically constitutes a single family unit entitled to only one homestead exemption.  The judge generally followed the Attorney General Opinions and found that the taxpayers were not a single family unit because one did not maintain the home of the other.

In Sarasota County, a circuit court judge considered the case of a married couple, where each spouse owned and lived in separate units within the same condominium building.  In that case, the judge ruled that the taxpayers were not entitled to separate homestead exemptions.  The judge found that in order to be entitled to separate homestead exemptions, the married couple would need to have filed for a dissolution of marriage and be able to clearly show an ending of their family relationship.

Finally, in Hillsborough County, a circuit court judge also found that a married couple was not entitled to separate homestead exemptions because their finances were substantially commingled, they were married, and they behaved like a family.

Conclusion

Married couples are statutorily prohibited form receiving dual homestead exemptions on properties that they own jointly.  However, where the properties are not jointly owned, they must still overcome the constitutional limitation of “one homestead exemption per family unit.”  There is currently no binding authority as to whether and when a married couple can be treated as two separate family units entitled to two separate homestead exemptions.  The Attorney General appears to believe that financial co-dependence is an important factor.  However, the courts have also looked at the couple’s relationship status.  In practice, some Property Appraisers deny dual homestead exemptions to all married couples, but most will follow up with the couple to obtain more information about their finances and, perhaps, their living arrangements.   The penalties for improperly receiving an extra homestead exemption are severe, so any couples who are contemplating seeking a second homestead exemption should be honest with the Property Appraiser about their married status and perhaps seek legal counsel to help them assess their situation and their legal rights.