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A Guide to Florida Homestead Laws

The laws governing Florida homestead properties are some of the most complicated in the country. A property that's considered to be a homestead qualifies for numerous protections and restrictions offered by Florida law, but both homes and homeowners must meet certain criteria.

These Florida laws fall into three categories: real estate taxes, creditor protection, and death, descent, and distribution laws.

The Rules for Florida Homesteads

You must have legal or beneficial title to the home on January 1 of the year in question, and you must reside there as your permanent residence.

You must apply for the homestead exemption in person at the property appraiser's office in the county where your home is located between January 1 and March 1 of the year in which you're seeking the exemption.

Tip: You can file an affidavit with the county clerk to help establish your intent that this property is your permanent residence, indicating that you intend to make Florida your full-time home. You still won't qualify, however, if you don't meet the other rules.

Homestead status generally remains in place until you inform the property appraiser's office that the property is no longer your Florida residence. Some counties send letters or postcards to remind homeowners that they're required to let the property appraiser's office know when this occurs.

The Save Our Homes Program

Florida's Save Our Homes program caps assessments. The annual valuation of your property for tax purposes can only increase by the lesser of 3% or the percentage change in the consumer price index for the prior year.

Tip: This can lead to significant savings on real estate taxes the longer you own your homestead property.

The Homestead Exemption

The Florida Department of Revenue's website publishes a complete list of the state's exemptions from real estate taxes.

A ballot initiative known as the Homestead Exemption Increase Amendment attempted to expand the exemption in 2018 from $50,000 to $75,000. But only homes appraised with a value of $100,000 or more would have reaped the benefits of the additional $25,000 exemption. Those homes with assessed values between $100,000 and $125,000 would be exempt from taxation altogether.

The amendment was ultimately defeated and the homestead exemption remains at $50,000 as of 2019. The first $25,000 in value is exempt from all taxes. The second $25,000 does not include school taxes.

Creditor Protection

Florida law provides that a judgment holder cannot force you to sell your home to pay off a debt if you're sued and the court awards a judgment against you. This protection from judgment creditors also carries over to certain heirs who might inherit your home after you die, including your spouse, children, siblings, nieces, and nephews.

Unfortunately, any judgments specific to the property such as foreclosures, past due association fees, and contractors’ liens will trump the state's homestead protection provisions. The state of Florida, its counties, and its municipalities can also force the sale of a property to collect past due property taxes.

Another exception exists for creditors who had liens against the property before it was established as your Florida homestead.

Death, Descent, and Distribution Laws

The restriction that Florida law places on who can receive your home when you die is probably the most confusing aspect of the state's homestead laws. The answer depends on whether you're married at the time of your death and whether any minor children survive you.

You can leave the home to anyone you like if you aren't survived by a spouse or any minor children. You can disinherit one adult child in favor of another, however, or your can disinherit your adult children entirely in favor of a sibling or a friend.

If you're survived by a minor child and you're married, and if your property is titled in joint names with your spouse, you can leave your protected homestead to your spouse through rights of survivorship.

A law went into effect on Oct. 1, 2010 allowing a single parent of a minor child to establish a special type of irrevocable trust for the minor child's benefit until an age selected by the parent. The home must be titled solely in the parent's name.

This avoids the need to set up a guardianship for the minor, and it gives the parent control over when and how the child will inherit the homestead. But the trust must be irrevocable, so it should only be established with the help of an estate planning attorney.

Important: "Irrevocable" means that after you form the trust, you can't undo it. There's no changing your mind and turning back.

A life estate was an automatic provision under Florida law until October 1, 2010, at least when a decedent did not leave the homestead to his spouse outright and without any strings attached. The surviving spouse would have had the right to live in the property until death, but would also have to pay all property taxes and the insurance necessary to maintain the residence.

Any adult children would receive the estate in equal shares after the second spouse died. The spouse couldn't force the children to sell the property, but the children couldn't force the spouse to sell it, either, if the spouse elected to live in the property until death.

Effective October 2010, however, a surviving spouse who was previously stuck with a life estate in a homestead can elect to divide the property, retaining one half. The children of the deceased spouse would equally divide the other half.

The surviving spouse must make this election within a limited period of time after the deceased spouse's death, however.

The Bottom Line

Florida homestead laws are tricky and multilayered. Consider meeting with a Florida attorney to ensure that you've planned appropriately if you have minor children, if you're considering moving to Florida, or if you're now using your second home there as your primary, permanent residence.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Roberts via Unsplash.

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