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Tax break restored for homeowners' survivors

Seven happy people won't be penalized for failing to transfer homestead exemptions into their own names.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2000


TAMPA -- For 14 years, Albert Harris worked as a waiter to cover the mortgage on his wife's house. Although he paid the bills, it was in every respect her home. She chose it, decorated it with antiques and put her maiden name on the deed.

When Mattie T. Harris died in 1997, her will gave Harris ownership of their modest home in Belmont Heights as long as he didn't remarry.

But four months ago, Harris got shocking news from Property Appraiser Rob Turner.

Turner told Harris he was not entitled to a tax break on the house because it was still listed in his late wife's name. The 76-year-old retiree, who waited tables at Morrison's Cafeteria for 20 years, would have to pay $1,241 in back taxes and penalties.

"I felt like the whole world had come down on me," he said.

But this week, Harris finally got some good news: Turner decided Harris is entitled to a homestead exemption and will get his money back. Turner's lawyer had found an opinion by the state that solved the problem.

That made both of them happy. "It seemed so inherently unfair," Turner said. "We could have looked the other way, but that's not the way we deal with things."

Turner's decision affects Harris and a half-dozen others in Hillsborough: widows and widowers who never transferred homestead exemptions to themselves even though they had legally inherited their homes.

The tax break exempts the first $25,000 of assessed value on a homestead. It also limits how much taxes can rise each year.

Some people had lived in their homes 10 years before Turner's office told them they didn't deserve the tax break. Many thought they would have to pay back taxes and penalties that in some cases totaled $10,000.

"I was like, "Oh my God, I am going to lose the house for taxes?' " said Vanessa McCray, 44, who was told she owed $9,600 since receiving the tax break after her husband died in 1990. "I prayed about it. I had it in God's hands. If the day came that I had to get a U-Haul and move, that was what I was going to do."

To many of these homeowners, it was all a technicality. After all, they weren't claiming something they did not deserve. They actually lived in their homes and in most cases had done so for generations. But in Turner's view, the law left no leeway: If the homestead exemption was in a dead person's name, it wasn't valid.

"In some cases, you feel bad," Turner said, "but you can't make decisions based on sympathy."

Turner's office put liens on homes when the taxes were not paid.

"I thought it was totally wrong when it happened," Mrs. McCray said. With a lien on her house, she couldn't take out a loan to pay the $9,600 in back taxes and penalties. She had to spend money she couldn't afford to hire a lawyer to research the issue. The liens would stay until the house was was sold but would not prompt a foreclosure.

"It was quite frustrating," said Erome Bonta, a widow who owed about $2,000 when Turner told her she wasn't entitled to a homestead exemption.

She planned to refinance her house to raise the money for the taxes. "I would rather cash out and buy a new vehicle or do some work on the house rather than pay off a lien I didn't think I should have to pay in the first place," Mrs. Bonta said.

In Harris' case, he actually paid the $1,200 tax lien out of retirement savings. To do that, he stopped paying for his heart medication. "I got broke paying all the bills," Harris said.

Turner's staff said they felt terrible about the situation, but felt their hands were tied.

"We have been wrestling with this for years," said Turner, who is running for his second term. "We all sat around and said, "What can we do?' "

Turner asked state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, to introduce legislation last year to fix the problem, but the bill died.

Then, after the Times began questioning Turner about the issue, his attorney, Will Shepherd, discovered a March 1999 opinion by the state Department of Revenue that said a homestead exemption is valid if the deceased spouse had properly obtained it and circumstances hadn't changed.

This week, Turner began personally calling the seven people in Hillsborough County affected by the problem with the good news: Any back taxes paid will be returned and any liens will be lifted.

Mrs. McCray was at home Wednesday when the phone rang.

"When he said, "This is Rob Turner,' I started to laugh," Mrs. McCray said.

"Who is playing a joke?" she wondered.

"He said, "No, this is Rob Turner.' "

Even though she was mad about the hassle, Mrs. McCray said she's pleased Turner admitted his mistake. "I'm just grateful to God that it's all over," she said.

Mrs. McCray said she might even vote for him in November. "It's possible."

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