Taylor v. Maness, 941 So.2d 559 (Fla. 3d DCA Nov 15, 2006)

Property rights vs. homestead rights: which wins out in litigation involving homestead property?  That’s a no-brainer: homestead rights trump property rights any day of the week.  The linked-to case underscores this general principal by applying it to a real live set of facts with very real economic consequences riding on how the court ruled.

Does the deed control? NO

In this case husband (but not wife) signed a sales contract for the sale of his homestead property located on Marathon Key, Florida (think VERY EXPENSIVE real estate!).  The house was deeded in husband’s name alone.  Wife was not consulted, and refused to sign a deed effectuating the sales contract.  Buyer sued to enforce the sales contract.  But buyer didn’t just want damages, he also wanted the court to specifically enforce the contract.  Court said NO WAY, and it didn’t matter that wife’s name wasn’t on the deed.  Why? Because spouse’s homestead rights trump all else.  The following excerpts should be enough to make the point:

The undisputed facts, which were before the trial court, are as follows. Mr. and Mrs. Maness were married on June 14, 1986. Sometime in September 1986, Mr. Maness purchased a vacant lot located at 180 Ana Court, Marathon, Monroe County, Florida, which was titled solely in the name of “James G. Maness, as a married man” (“Marathon Property”).     .     .     .     .     On or about September 25, 2002, Mr. Maness, as the seller, and the Taylors, as the purchasers, entered into a contract, whereby Mr. Maness agreed to convey the Marathon Property to the Taylors. Mrs. Maness did not execute the contract, nor was she named in the contract. Closing was to take place on or before December 2, 2002. Mrs. Maness, however, refused to execute the deed transferring the Marathon Property to the Taylors, claiming that she has a homestead interest in the Marathon Property, thereby precluding consummation of the contract.

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In reaching our conclusion, we wish to address Mrs. Maness’ homestead interest in the Marathon Property. The Taylors correctly point out that Mrs. Maness is not the title owner of the Marathon Property. However, the individual claiming the homestead exemption need not hold fee simple title to the property. Callava v. Feinberg, 864 So.2d 429, 431 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003). Article X, section 4 “does not designate how title to the property is to be held and it does not limit the estate that must be owned, i.e., fee simple, life estate, or some lesser interest.” Stilwell, 810 So.2d at 569. Thus, even if Mrs. Maness owns only a beneficial interest in the Marathon Property, she is entitled to claim a homestead exemption to the forced sale of the property. See Callava, 864 So.2d at 431 (holding that even if divorced wife only owned a beneficial interest and not title interest in the residence constituting her homestead, she was nonetheless entitled to claim a homestead exemption from the forced sale of the property).

Lesson learned:

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously said that it was the "unknown unknowns" that worried him most (see here for the You Tube version).  In litigation involving homestead real property, simply reading the deed tells you very little about the principal issue driving the case.  Knowing this unstated fact in advance may make all the difference in the world.  If your opponent is unaware of this fact, he or she is about to learn why the "unknown unknowns" are the scariest part of practicing law.