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Court Upholds Sarasota Homestead Exemption Penalties

balcony view of Siesta Key
Siesta Key home/PX Here via Creative Commons
Siesta Key home/PX Here via Creative Commons

While expressing sympathy for the couple, a state appeals court Friday upheld financial penalties against two Sarasota County residents who received a homestead exemption in Florida while also receiving a property-tax exemption on a home in Ohio.

The couple, William and Nancy Fitts, argued they are permanent Florida residents and that what is described in the case as a “third party’s error” led to them receiving the tax exemption in Ohio.

But a law bars people from benefiting from homestead exemptions in Florida while benefiting from similar exemptions in other states. The Sarasota County property appraiser placed a tax lien against the couple’s Florida property and stripped its homestead exemption because the Fittses also were benefiting from the Ohio exemption.

The couple filed a lawsuit challenging the decision but lost in circuit court. A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with the circuit judge Friday, pointing to “plain language” in state law.

“We, like the circuit court, are sympathetic to the Fittses,” said the 16-page ruling, written by Judge Anthony Black and joined by judges Craig Villanti and Robert Morris.

“There is a tax lien on their Sarasota County home for back taxes, penalties, and interest due to an error on the part of a third party in another state that apparently went undetected by the Fittses until they received the notice from the (Sarasota County) property appraiser. The tax credit they received in Ohio was negligible compared to the sanctions they now face. But the remedy for this shortcoming ‘lies with the Legislature, not the courts.’ … And thus we encourage the Legislature to amend the statutes if it does not intend the lien and penalties of (a section of state law) to apply in cases like the Fittses.”

The appeals court Friday also ruled against another Sarasota County resident, Gerald Brielmaier, in a similar dispute. The appeals court said the property appraiser determined that Brielmaier had benefited from a tax exemption in Wisconsin while also receiving a homestead exemption in Florida.