Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ones Homestead Is A rather Simple Equation In the End...

Ones Homestead is a rather simple equation in the end...

One's Homestead is a rather simple equation in the end; residence plus intent to remain. The notion of "home" is an elusive and elastic concept that remains a powerful component of virtually every culture. Emily Dickenson wrote, "Where thou art, that is Home." Robert Frost observed that "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed, "He is the happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home." And Christian Morgenstern offered, "Home is not where you live, but where they understand you."

The notion that the home is not only one's castle but that one's castle should be protected from one's creditors is very much a part of the American legal landscape, and that is never more evident than in the very generous homestead exemption found in the Florida Constitution.

In the recent bankruptcy case of 'In re Preston', the trustee's position in this case sought to recover certain alleged fraudulent transfers and also objected to the debtor's claimed homestead exemption. The debtor listed an interest in a condominium located in Pompano Beach, Florida, which he claimed as his homestead. The first count of the complaint contended that the debtor was not entitled to claim a Florida homestead because he neverintended to live in Florida but simply kept a "vacation property" here.

It was the debtor's contention that he lived in Florida but routinely traveled back to California for his work. The confusion related to the residential property the debtor and his wife owned in Huntington Beach, California. However, for purposes of the homestead issue, the inquiry is rather simple: did the debtor in fact move to Florida with the intent to reside there indefinitely?

The trustee, however, pointed out that prior to the bankruptcy filing, the debtor did not have a Florida bank account or own a car registered in Florida. The debtor failed to claim Florida's homestead ad valorem property tax exemption, which only allows for a reduction in the payment of real estate taxes for Florida residents. The debtor's bankruptcy petition showed a California mailing address. The debtor's tax returns listed the California home as his residence. On credit applications and personal guaranties given to vendors doing business with a corporation, the debtor listed the California property as his residence.

The trustee also supplied the Court with bank records showing the use of his wife's debit card; most of the charges which were incurred in California, not Florida. Perhaps the most significant objection the trustee raised to the court was regarding the debtor's purported Florida homestead is the fact that the debtor continued to work for various California companies.

What this array of conflicting testimony means is that there is no "smoking gun," no concrete, conclusive evidence of the debtor's actual domicile or homestead. Such things as one's mailing address become a transitory concept, based more on ease of access wherever one might be at the moment, rather than on the idea that one's mail should be sent to where you "live." It is, one might suggest, simply the modern equivalent of the old saying, "Home is where I hang my hat."

None of this, however, should imply that such a debtor is to be denied the opportunity to claim a homestead to the extent one is appropriate. Indeed, one of Florida's strongest exemptions is that which protects homestead property. As more than one court has indicated, the Florida Constitution grants debtors "a liberal exemption" for homestead property. In Florida, a homestead is established when there is "actual intent to live permanently in a place, coupled with actual use and occupancy." Ultimately, all that is required is that the property owner reside on the property and in good faith make the same his permanent home. Exceptions to the homestead exemption should be strictly construed in favor of claimants and against creditors or legal challengers.

However, on the issue of this debtor's homestead, the Court had to eventaully conclude that the debtor had provided sufficient evidence of his residence in the Pompano Beach condominium and his "actual intent" to live there permanently prior to the filing of this bankruptcy case. One’s homestead or domicile is a rather simple equation in the end: residence plus intent to remain, along with the homestead claim.

Exceptions to the homestead exemption are to be "strictly construed" in favor of any claimant, and the courts can only conclude it that a debtor resides on the property and "in good faith" intends it to be his permanent home should a claim be filed. Florida Homestead Services can help you to make the claim. Contact us today!