Dirt Lawyers: beware of these assessor antics

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and be aware of a tool for fighting back!

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The South Carolina Bar maintains a great listserv for members of the Real Estate Practices Section through which lawyers can ask questions and share information via email. I recommend that South Carolina real estate practitioners join the section and the list. Both provide opportunities for staying in touch with fellow practitioners and keeping up with news and trends.

Recently, the list contained this entry from a wonderful practitioner in Myrtle Beach whose name I’m withholding from this blog:

“Good morning Listmates,

Is every County going through the same audit of principal residence discounts for their taxpayers? Or is it just in Horry County? I have run into multiple back-charged properties and even ran into one where it was back-charged between when we did the title search and when we recorded the Deed. (And, yes, the Assessor refused to abate the new bills for the new owner.)

So what we have now is that on any given day the assessor can back charge multiple years’ worth of taxes (and you know how big the discount is, so these bills aren’t tiny!) regardless of whether or not we have searched the title, whether the property is in foreclosure, or even whether or not the property owner is dead. (Yes – my situation involved a deceased person in foreclosure – who do I go after for that tax bill payment??)

Add to this that our title abstractors who update the title work prior to recording are looking for judgments, liens, Deeds, Mortgages….but they are not looking for new tax bills, because tax bills come out in the Fall, right? Not anymore.

I imagine the buyers who get stuck with these bills could make a title insurance claim, but ultimately that will come back to the attorney because we “missed it” and then the E&O premiums go up and the client is lost to us because we look incompetent.

I guess the moral of this story is to instruct your abstractors to check for taxes before recording any Deeds. If you have a seller on the hook at least you can get the taxes paid at the closing. (Or if you have a deceased foreclosed party, at least you’ll know before the next tax year…)”

Horry County is, of course, a vacation haven. Many, many homeowners use Horry County properties as second homes and investment properties. Primary resident discounts amount to the difference in a 6% and a 4% mileage rate, so, as the astute lawyer suggested in her e-mail to fellow real estate practitioners, the differences are “not tiny”. Thus, all the coastal counties are vigilant about policing the discounts for primary residents.

(I know a guy who lives in an interior county in North Carolina and owns a second home in the Outer Banks. He votes where his beach house is located and has his mail delivered there, resulting in multiple trips to retrieve the mail. I don’t know exactly how the North Carolina statute on the primary residence discount reads, but I don’t recommend this tactic without the advice of a tax expert.)

Luckily for us in South Carolina, the Palmetto Land Title Association worked on this problem several years ago. Teri Callen of our office was Legislative Chair of PLTA at a time when the Association lobbied to “fix” the situation outlined above.

The Association, through intense lobbying efforts, was able to obtain a statutory amendment to the effect that a tax bill is final and that a “surprise” change in the 4% eligibility would only result in a personal liability so as not to affect title to the real property.

Most buyers are protected because they are bona fide purchasers for value without notice. (The lawyer’s problem, above, with the deceased property owner in foreclosure might not see the benefit of the statute.) The amendment went into effect in 2016, and counties will typically withdraw their surprise tax bills when they are provided with the statutory language.

Section 12-43-220(c)(2)(vii) of the South Carolina code now reads:

“(A) if a person signs the certification, obtains the four percent assessment ratio, and is thereafter found not eligible, or thereafter loses eligibility and fails to notify the assessor within six months, a penalty is imposed equal to one hundred percent of the tax paid, plus interest on that amount at the rate of one-half of one percent a month, but in no case less than thirty dollars nor more than the current year’s taxes. This penalty and any interest are considered ad valorem taxes due of the property for the purposes of collection and enforcement.

(B) If property had undergone an assessable transfer of interest as provided pursuant to Section 12-37-3150 and the transferee is a bona fide purchaser for value without notice, penalties assessed pursuant to subsection (vii)(A) and the additional property taxes and late payment penalties are solely the personal liability of the transferor and do not constitute a lien on and are not enforceable against the property in the hands of the transferee…”

Thanks to Teri Callen and Palmetto Land Title Association for this statutory “fix”! If you are faced with the problem outlined in the email above, provide your assessor’s office with the statute and remind them that the Code does not allow a “re-do” of tax bills that affect third party purchasers.

Also, consider joining Palmetto Land Title Association. It fights for us!

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The housing industry is crying Bah! Humbug!

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Congress may eliminate mortgage interest deduction

Mike Goodwin, the “Bow Tie Comedian” based here in Columbia, mike-goodwin-bowtie-comedianentertained us during lunch at our recent Chicago Title seminar. A joke that bubbled up through his very funny presentation was a line his mother used to keep him on the straight and narrow during his childhood, “what you NOT gonna do is…..”

For example, she would say, what you NOT gonna do is to stand there and hold that refrigerator door open while you try to decide what you want to eat. During one lull in the laughter, Mike said to us, “what you NOT gonna do is sit there and not laugh at my jokes.” (So we laughed.)

While some of us believe America is about to be made great again, some of us might like to borrow Mike’s line to deliver a Bah! Humbug! message to Congress:  What you NOT gonna do is to eliminate, or effectively reduce the effectiveness of, the mortgage interest deduction. Many homebuilders, lenders and real estate agents (and South Carolina dirt lawyers) believe that’s one thing we don’t need 2017.

The mortgage interest deduction is a major driver of the housing market. One reason American dreamers strive for home ownership is to take advantage of this tax break. That, along with the property tax deduction, the points deduction, the PMI deduction and the home office deduction, make owning a home a wise move from a tax standpoint. Eliminating or reducing the effectiveness of the home interest deduction, which many consider as American as apple pie, might put a damper on the improved economy we have been experiencing in 2016.

But that approach is definitely going to be under consideration by Congress, and players in the housing industry are preparing to defend the deduction. The plan under consideration involves not a direct elimination of the deduction, but an indirect attack via an increase of the standardized deductions, now at $6,300 for a single taxpayer and $12,600 for married taxpayers filing jointly. By doubling these standard deductions, many taxpayers would have no need to take the mortgage interest deduction.

The mortgage interest deduction is the largest deduction currently available to homeowners, allowing a write-off of interest from up to a $500,000 loan for a single taxpayer and up to a $1 million loan for joint filers. The deduction is especially important during the early years of a mortgage when the majority of payments are applied to interest rather than principal.

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“Congress … what you NOT gonna do is … “

If a single taxpayer pays mortgage interest of $8,000 in the first of home ownership, for example, that amount exceeds the current standard deduction of $6,300, and that taxpayer would itemize to claim a better tax break. If the standardized deduction is doubled, itemization is much less likely.

President-Elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, has stated that the administration is planning to create the largest tax change since Reagan. Simplifying the tax code is one of the stated objectives, and a larger standard deduction is one method of simplification. In addition to the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction would be affected in a similar manner.  Some say that as the standard deduction goes up, the incentive to give is reduced.

Any step that would reduce incentives for homeownership would likely encourage renting rather than buying. Home values might suffer, and the housing industry might suffer as well.

All Americans are interested in the changes that are about to happen, and those of us in the housing industry may be more interested than most! I have already seen prognosticators reducing their optimism about 2017, but I just got off the phone with a local wise man. He said that I should relax. 2017 is going to be a banner year, he said, because America is going to be great again. I hope he’s right!

SCDOR Issues Revenue Rulings On Same-Sex Marriage Tax Issues

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rainbow stateOn December 31, 2014, the South Carolina Department of Revenue issued two Revenue Rulings (14-8 and 14-9) addressing same-sex marriage tax issues. These Revenue Rulings were necessary because South Carolina’s ban on same sex marriage was held unconstitutional in November of 2014.

Revenue Ruling 14-8 states that same-sex couples who are legally married in any state must file their South Carolina income tax returns, beginning with tax year 2014, using a married filing status, either “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”.  Same-sex couples legally married before 2014 may amend their South Carolina income tax returns for any taxable year within the statutory time limitations to a married filing status, but they are not required to take this action.

Revenue Ruling 14-9 has more impact for real estate practitioners. It states that same-sex couples who are legally married under any state law will now be treated as married and as “spouses” for all South Carolina tax purposes.

Revenue Ruling 14-9 provided examples:

Ad valorem property taxes:

  • A same-sex legally married couple may be able to qualify their home for the 4% assessment ratio.
  • If each member of a same-sex legally married couple owns a residence, only one of those residences may qualify for the 4% assessment ratio since as a married couple they may have only one legal residence.
  • Same-sex legally married couples may now qualify for the homestead exemption.
  • A person in a same-sex marriage now qualifies as a “spouse” for purposes of exemptions for the homes of certain disabled veterans, law enforcement officers and firefighters.
  • A person in a same-sex marriage now qualifies as a “spouse” for the purposes of exemptions for the home of a paraplegic or hemiplegic person.
  • Transfers of real property between spouses of a same-sex couple may now be exempted from the assessable transfer of interest rules.

Deed recording fee

  • Transfers of real property from one same-sex spouse to the other will now be exempted from the deed recording fee.
  • Transfers of real estate to a former same-sex spouse pursuant to the terms of a divorce decree or settlement will now be exempted from the deed recording fee.
  • Deeds from a family partnership (one in which all partners are members of the same family) to one of the partners are exempt from the deed recording fee as long as no consideration is paid for the transfer other than a reduction in the grantee’s interest in the partnership. Since the definition of “family” in this exemption includes a “spouse”, the exemption now applies to family partnerships that include same-sex spouses.

Refunds

The recognition in South Carolina of same-sex marriages may allow a same-sex couple, or a same-sex spouse or surviving spouse, to be eligible for a refund of previously paid property taxes or deed recording fees if the same-sex couple was considered legally married under any state law for the period for which the refund is requested and the refund request is made within the applicable statutory time limitation.