Back in 2007 I wrote here about a provocative Florida Bar Journal article [click here] by renowned trusts and estates attorney Jeffrey A. Baskies sounding the alarm on the unfair economic burden borne by widows and widowers receiving life estates in homestead property and the inability of these surviving spouses to use partition actions to remedy their situations. Here’s how Mr. Baskies summed up the problem:

Florida’s homestead laws have created a new trap for surviving spouses — the life estate that was designed to protect them has instead trapped them in homes they no longer want and can no longer afford.

This situation has become acute as a result of the convergence of several developments over the past five years. There has been a tremendous increase in property taxes statewide. While many homesteads have benefitted from the “save our homes” cap on ad valorem property taxes, for those that were purchased in the last few years, the base for property taxes may already be inflated. Homeowners’ insurance costs for everyone have increased as much as several hundred percent. For many surviving spouses, there have been special assessments for condo and homeowners’ associations for hurricane damage. For those in single family homes, many have had to pay for significant repairs not covered by insurance. Floridians benefitting from the “save our homes” cap on their property taxes have a generalized fear of moving, because to do so could result in significantly increased taxes as a result of purchasing a new home (even a less expensive one). Finally, as a result of increased property values, many surviving spouses who want to move fear they cannot find a reasonable alternative place to live.

Combined, these factors have created a difficult situation for many Florida residents. But, when coupled with an inability to alter or sell their life interests, many surviving spouses are trapped in their homesteads. If they no longer desire to live in their homes or they can no longer afford to do so, what can they do and where can they go?

Legislators responded to Mr. Baskies’ call to action by amending F.S. 732.401 to allow a surviving spouse to opt out of a life estate and instead take a 50% tenancy-in-common interest in the homestead property. As explained in this Legislative White Paper, taking a 50% tenancy-in-common interest in lieu of a life estate can offer significant benefits to surviving spouses. If the surviving spouse is incapacitated, F.S. 744.444(9) has been amended to empower her guardian to make the election for her.

A key provision of this new legislation is the applicable deadline: the election must be made within 6 months after the decedent’s death and during the surviving spouse’s lifetime. Bottom line, the new statute and the Legislative White Paper explaining how it works should be required reading for all Florida probate lawyers.

But What about Post-death Disclaimers of Homestead Rights?

Another way surviving spouses have always been able to opt out of homestead property rights is via a post-death disclaimer. However, there’s been conflicting trial-court rulings on exactly what happens as a matter of law when a surviving spouses disclaims his or her homestead-property rights. Here’s how the conflcting authority was summarized in this Legislative White Paper:

In reviewing the effect of a spouse’s disclaimer of his or her homestead interest, circuit courts have reached conflicting results. See In Re: Estate of Joseph T Ryerson, Jr., No. 93-307 (Fla. 15th Cir. Ct., June 17, 1993), affd, per curiam, No. 93-2074 (Fla. 4th DCA July 20,1994) and In re: Estate of Frances N Janien, 12 Fla. 1. Weekly Supp. 221 (February 28, 2005), Case No. 502004CP000973 (Fla. 15th Cir. Ct., (December 6, 2004), in which the courts held that where homestead was invalidly devised, a post death disclaimer of the surviving spouse’s life estate in homestead did not divest the decedent’s descendants of their vested remainder interests. At least one other circuit court has reached an opposite result under similar facts and held that the spouse’s disclaimer would divest the decedent’s descendants of their interests and give effect to the otherwise invalid devise. See In Re: Estate of Harry Sudakoff, No. 91-87 (Fla. 12th Cir. Ct. March 25, 1994), affd, per curiam, No. 94-02102 (Fla. 2d DCA, March 10, 1995). 

New legislation addresses this conflicting authority by codifying the Ryerson approach in new subsection (4) of F.S. 732.401 and new subsection (3) of F.S. 732.4015.