Sunday, August 5, 2012

C. Florida City Commissioner Bagged By Taxing Authorities For Allegedly Claiming Double Homestead Property Tax Exemption; Forced To Cough Up $3K+

In Winter Springs, Florida, the Seminole Chronicle reports:
  • Although reports show Winter Springs Commissioner Avery Smith is facing penalties for claiming two homestead exemptions in Seminole County, her position in city government remains much safer than her checkbook.
  • Since Smith is a valid resident of Winter Springs and an elected commissioner, there must be a violation of the Winter Springs charter, as stated in Section 4.08b, performed in order to consider removing her from office, he said.

    However, she is still being ordered to pay $3,106.47 in fees and back taxes to the county, which she did on July 19, Seminole County Property Appraiser David Johnson said.

    The trouble first began on June 25 after Smith entered the public eye, filling the empty seat left by former Commissioner Gary Bonner.

    After accepting her position on the Board of Commissions, Smith signed an affidavit stating that she had lived in a Winter Springs residence for five and a half years, Lacey said. During that time, reports show a permanent residence in Casselberry was registered under Smith's name.

    A separate residence in Winter Springs was registered under her husband's name, Stuart Knoll, at the same time, and both had applied for a homestead tax exemption on their residences, Johnson said.

    After this discovery, a revised affidavit stating that Smith resided in Winter Springs for more than a year was submitted to the Board of Commissions, Lacey said.

    "State law allows Florida homeowners to claim up to a $50,000 Homestead Exemption on their primary residence," according to the Seminole County Property Appraiser Office's website.

    From the time Smith and Knoll were married, they became a single family unit, Johnson said. According to the website, a single family unit cannot apply for two homestead exemptions on two different permanent residences.(1)

    "Homestead exemption fraud is a serious case, and we take it very seriously," Johnson said. "The situation has kind of been resolved, but this has been an extremely rare situation."

    After Smith stated in the affidavit she signed that she lived in Winter Springs for the past five years, the Property Appraiser's Office found it inconsistent with its records and launched an investigation, he said.
(1) In Florida (and contrary to popular belief, particularly among uninformed government bureaucrats charged with the duty of setting tax valuations on homes and collecting real estate taxes thereon), state law and prior opinions issued by the state Attorney General appear to make pretty clear that, provided they otherwise qualify, there is nothing necessarily illegal or otherwise improper about a husband and a wife to each claim a homestead exemption on separate residences in certain circumstances ('double homesteads') (while formal opinions issued by the Florida Attorney General are not binding on any court, the Florida case law cited therein is certainly binding). See:
  • Florida Administrative Code Rule 12D-7.007(7):

    "A married woman and her husband may establish separate permanent residences without showing “impelling reasons” or “just ground” for doing so. If it is determined by the property appraiser that separate permanent residences and separate “family units” have been established by the husband and wife, and they are otherwise qualified, each may be granted homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation under Article VII, Section 6, 1968 State Constitution. The fact that both residences may be owned by both husband and wife as tenants by the entireties will not defeat the grant of homestead ad valorem tax exemption to the permanent residence of each."

    Florida Attorney General Opinion 75 Op. Att'y Gen. 146 (1975), Husband And Wife Maintaining Separate Residences May Both Qualify For Homestead Exemption;

    Florida Attorney General Opinion 05 Op. Att'y Gen. 60 (2005), Homestead Exemption -- separate residences and homestead exemption. Art. VII, s. 6, Fla. Const.

    Wells v. Haldeos, Case No. 2D09-4250 (Fla. App. 2d DCA 2010).

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