Statutes sometimes use language that is less than clear. Case in point: Florida Statutes 193.155 (Homestead Assessments), which borrows the phrase “naturally dependent” from the homestead language of the Florida constitution. In Willens v. Garcia, Florida’s 3DCA had to interpret this language in an appeal from the Miami-Dade County Circuit involving inheritability of the homestead tax benefits provided under Florida law.
Shane Willens served as the “full-time, in-home, resident caretaker for his stroke-bound father” for some 20 years. From 1992 until his death, Shane’s father was protected by the Save-Our-Homes cap, which limits the annual increase of the assessed value of homestead property to 3 percent annually. When Shane’s father died, Shane acquired his father’s home as remainderman under a life estate deed. The Miami-Dade County property appraiser then reassessed the home at true value. Shane objected, claiming that the transfer of the property to him was not a true change in ownership for purposes of the Florida homestead tax statutes.
Florida Statutes 193.155(3)(a) requires that Florida homestead property be “assessed at just value as of January 1 of the year following a change of ownership.” The change in ownership terminates any benefit that the prior owner enjoyed due to the Save Our Homes cap. But not every change in ownership is a “change in ownership” within the meaning of the statute. There are several statutory exceptions, one of which applies to a “transfer [at death] between the owner and another who is a permanent resident and is legally or naturally dependent upon the owner.”
Shane claimed that he was “naturally dependent” on his father and thus statutorily protected against a reassessment of the property at fair market value. The trial court rejected this argument and allowed the property to be reassessed at true value. On appeal, the 3DCA had to determine what the phrase “naturally dependent’ means in the context of Florida homestead tax exemption. Since the phrase “legally or naturally dependent” is not defined in the Florida statutes, the Court had to decide, with little guidance, how that phrase would apply to Shane’s situation.
Shane argued that “naturally dependent” included the concept of “moral obligation.” Under this line of reasoning, Shane was morally obligated to support his father and thus naturally dependent on him for the years that he supported him. Shane buttressed his argument with a 1982 Attorney General opinion that found that natural dependent included moral dependency.
The Court rejected Shane’s argument, stating that the 1982 Attorney General opinion was “based upon questionable reasoning.” The Court found a 1938 Attorney General opinion to be more persuasive. That opinion, which interpreted a prior version of the homestead law that was similar to the one at issue, held that “naturally dependent” refers to “persons related by blood to the owner of the property” that depend on the owner for support. Finding that Shane did not qualify under this definition, the Court upheld the reassessment of the homestead property at full value.
The opinion is full hints that the court was sympathetic to Shane’s situation. The court repeatedly used laudatory language to refer to Shane (e.g., stating that Shane’s “multi-decade sacrifice of himself for the benefit of his father is laudable, indeed heroic in its proportions”). But there were gaps in Shane’s reasoning. If anyone was dependent on anyone, it was Shane’s father that was dependent on him. At the end of the day, there wasn’t a logical basis for reversing the dependency and finding that an “able-bodied adult” was somehow dependent upon the one he took care of. And that was fatal to Shane’s position.
Willens v. Garcia, 36 Fla. L. Weekly (Fla. 3d DCA 2011)