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Grisolia v. Pfeffer, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 5864806 (Fla. 3d DCA Nov 23, 2011)

The key to understanding this case is recognizing that one word: “homestead;” is used in three very different ways in Florida’s constitution:

[1] Exemption from forced sale: Article X, §4(a) and (b)

[2] Descent and devise: Article X, §4(c)

[3] Taxation: Article VII, §6

The same home can qualify as “homestead” under one constitutional homestead clause, while at the same time failing to qualify as “homestead” under another constitutional homestead clause. For example, for public policy reasons Florida’s homestead tax exemption (Article VII, §6) is “strictly construed.” In other words, when in doubt, courts must rule against homeowners claiming this tax benefit. By contrast, Florida’s homestead creditor protection (Article X, §4(a) and (b)) is “liberally construed.” When in doubt, courts must rule in favor of homeowners claiming this asset-protection benefit.

Courts get into trouble when they rely on a line of homestead case-law authority developed to address one facet of homestead law (e.g., taxes), to decide a case involving another facet of homestead law (e.g., creditor protection). That’s what happened in the linked-to case above.

Case Study:

In the linked-to case above the decedent was a foreign national (Venezuelan) who moved to Florida in 2005 after his US-born son was almost kidnapped in Venezuela. In 2006 the decedent purchased an apartment in Florida, which he resided in with his family. In 2007 the decedent was loaned $500,000. In 2009 the decedent died intestate while still residing with his family in his Florida apartment. When the decedent’s creditors tried to enforce their debt against his estate, his wife claimed the homestead creditor protection to shield the family’s apartment from their claims.

A foreign national does not qualify for the homestead tax exemption unless he’s a permanent US resident (i.e., Greencard holder), which the decedent wasn’t. The trial court ruled against the family on the homestead creditor protection issue based in large part on the fact that the decedent never claimed, nor did he ever qualify for, the homestead tax exemption. Wrong answer, says the 3d DCA. Just because your “homestead” does not qualify for the tax exemption does not mean it fails to qualify for creditor protection.

In Florida, “courts have consistently held that the protections afforded by the ‘homestead exemption in article X, section 4 must be liberally construed.’“ Taylor v. Maness, 941 So.2d 559, 562 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006) (citation omitted). Furthermore, the homestead exemption jurisprudence of Florida courts “has long been guided by a policy favoring the liberal construction of the exemption: ‘Organic and statutory provisions relating to homestead exemptions should be liberally construed in the interest of the family home.’“ Taylor, 941 So.2d at 562 (citations omitted). Accordingly, the Florida homestead exemption from forced sale “is liberally construed for the benefit of those it was designed to protect.” Taylor, 941 So.2d at 562 (quoting Law v. Law, 738 So.2d 522, 524 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999)).

. . . . . .

Appellees cite to several bankruptcy cases where a debtor, because of his immigration status, could not formulate the requisite intent to make his property his permanent residence. These cases ignore that eligibility for the homestead exemption depends on the intent of the homesteader rather than that of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. See Cooke, 412 So.2d at 341.

. . . . . .

Other cases cited by Appellees are inapposite as they involve Florida’s homestead exemption from taxation that is now set forth in article VII, section 6 of the Florida Constitution (“Tax Exemption”), rather than the homestead exemption from forced sale found in article X, section 4. For example, in Juarrero v. McNayr, 157 So.2d 79 (1963), the Florida Supreme Court held that a citizen and former resident of a foreign country, who is in the United States solely on the authority of a temporary visa, “has no assurance that he can continue to reside in good faith for any fixed period of time in this country … [and, therefore] does not have the legal ability to determine for himself his future status and does not have the ability legally to convert a temporary residence into a permanent home.” Id. at 81. Likewise, in DeQuervain v. Desguin, 927 So.2d 232 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006), the court found that homeowners who held only temporary visas “could not form the requisite intent to become permanent residents for purposes of the [Tax Exemption].” Id. at 233. However, the Second District also clarified that “because the [Tax Exemption] provides relief from an ad valorem tax, we must construe the statute strictly against [the homeowners].” Id. (citing Capital City Country Club, Inc. v. Tucker, 613 So.2d 448, 452 (1993)). The strict construction applicable to the Tax Exemption stands in contrast to the liberal construction of the homestead exemption from forced sale at issue here. See Taylor, 941 So.2d at 562; Law, 738 So.2d at 524.

Similarly, at the evidentiary hearing the Appellees raised the fact that the Decedent had never claimed a Tax Exemption on the Property. They further argue on appeal that a person in the United States under a temporary visa cannot meet the requirement of permanent residence or home, and therefore, cannot claim the Tax Exemption. Fla. Admin Code R. 12D–7.007 (2002). We note that the portion of the Florida Administrative Code to which they cite applies to the Tax Exemption and not to the homestead exemption from forced sale at issue here. The probate court referenced in the order on appeal that “[i]n fact, the Decedent never claimed a [Tax Exemption] according to the Miami–Dade County Tax Rolls.” As we have previously stated, “[f]ailure to claim the [Tax Exemption] is not evidence that property is not, in fact, homestead.” Taylor, 941 So.2d at 563 (citing Pierrepoint v. Humphreys, 413 So.2d 140, 143 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982)). Clearly, “the homestead exemption from forced sale is different from the [Tax Exemption].” Taylor, 941 So.2d at 563 (citing S. Walls, Inc. v. Stilwell Corp., 810 So.2d 566, 569 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002)).

Under the specific facts of the this case, because the Decedent’s American-born Son resided in the Property since its purchase, the Decedent and Widow had a visa which gave them the legal right to reside in Florida, and were actively pursuing permanent residence status prior to the Decedent’s death, we find that the Decedent demonstrated the requisite intent to make the Property his family’s permanent residence. Based upon the foregoing, we reverse the probate court’s order denying the petition for declaration of homestead exemption.

Lesson learned?

Not being a permanent US resident (i.e., Greencard holder) does NOT mean you don’t qualify for Florida’s homestead creditor protection (Article X, §4(a) and (b)). Understanding this point is a big deal in a state like Florida, which according to the National Association of Realtors accounted for a quarter of all U.S. residential real estate sales to foreigners during the 12 months ended June 2012 (the most recent data available), the highest level nationwide. See Foreign Buyers Drive Florida’s Housing Recovery.