Victory! Gay Widower Wins Florida Property Tax Battle

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October 22, 2015
James Merrick Smith and Hal Birchfield

At a hearing today, the Miami-Dade County Office of Property Appraisal agreed to reinstate the spousal homestead protections of Lambda Legal client Hal Birchfield, a gay widower previously denied protections against certain tax increases for the home he had shared with his husband because his marriage was not recognized at the time of his husband’s death. In addition, the County will reimburse Birchfield the taxes he paid while he contested the denial of the homestead tax protections.

Karen Loewy, Senior Attorney for Lambda Legal, said:

We are so pleased that Mr. Birchfield’s homestead protections were restored and that the excess property taxes will be refunded, in accordance with Florida law. It is unfortunate that Mr. Birchfield was subjected to this financially and emotionally draining experience, and had to retain lawyers to assert rights that should have been protected in the first place. Homestead exemptions protect surviving spouses against a dramatic spike in property taxes after the loss of their loved ones, and are particularly important for seniors on fixed incomes who might otherwise lose their homes. We are grateful to our colleagues at White & Case. They’ve done yeoman’s work on this case to help Mr. Birchfield and this resolution would not have happened without them.

After more than 40 years together, Hal Birchfield and James Merrick Smith traveled to New York in October 2012 and got married. Tragically, less than a year later, in September 2013, James died. Upon James’ death, his share of the home they owned together was transferred to Hal, but because at that time Florida did not recognize their marriage, that transfer was treated as a “change of ownership” instead of as a transfer to a surviving spouse. As a result, the taxable value of Hal’s property jumped significantly – a financial burden from which surviving different-sex spouses are protected.

Although Florida’s discriminatory marriage ban was not struck down until January 2015, in August 2014, Hal filed an application with the Miami-Dade County Office of Property Appraisal to reinstate the spousal homestead protections he should have received at the time of James’ death.

This past August, Lambda Legal and cooperating counsel White & Case sent a demand letter to the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser on behalf of Birchfield asserting that Florida’s homestead laws provide critical protections to married couples and, as this past summer’s historic U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made clear, those protections apply to all married couples, regardless of their sexual orientation or sex. The Miami-Dade Office of Property Appraisal resolved this matter with Birchfield by reinstating his homestead exemption tax protections and promising to refund the excess taxes that he has paid.

Birchfield said:

After months of disregard and discrimination, I am happy that this issue is finally resolved. Mourning the love of my life is hard enough. It adds insult to injury to have our relationship not treated like that of any other couple when it came to the home we shared together. I’m grateful I had Lambda Legal to help protect my rights, but I hope no other same-sex spouse in Florida or anywhere has to go through this just to make sure they have housing security as they get older.

Read the press release.