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Soldier’s Widow Wins Property Tax Dispute

A Fla. constitutional amendment passed in 2012 gave tax relief to deceased soldiers’ families. Lawmakers decided they must be residents, but an appeals court disagreed.

TALLAHASSEE – Siding with the widow of a soldier killed in Iraq, an appeals court said Florida lawmakers improperly carried out a constitutional amendment designed to provide tax relief to spouses of military members who die in the line of duty.

The case stems from a 2012 constitutional amendment, overwhelmingly approved by voters, that authorized the Legislature to provide homestead property-tax relief to surviving spouses of military members who are killed.

The House and Senate subsequently passed a law to carry out the amendment. While that law provided a property-tax exemption to surviving spouses, it also included a condition that the “veteran was a permanent resident of this state on January 1 of the year in which the veteran died.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Teri Ann Bell, sought a property-tax exemption in 2013 in Hillsborough County. She is the widow of an Army member who died in 2007 while serving in Iraq.

The Hillsborough County property appraiser’s office, however, denied the exemption because Bell’s husband was not a Florida resident on Jan. 1, 2007 – as required in the law carrying out the constitutional amendment.

A circuit judge backed Bell’s request for a tax exemption, finding that the condition placed on it was “invalid and unenforceable,” according to Wednesday’s ruling by a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The state took the issue to the appeals court, which weighed the language in the constitutional amendment against the subsequent law passed by the Legislature. It said the “text of the constitutional provision does not limit this benefit to surviving spouses whose spouse was a Florida resident on January 1 of the year of death.”

“The people of this state said that, to be eligible for this benefit, the recipient must be the surviving spouse of a veteran who died from service-connected causes while on active duty as a member of the United States Armed Forces,” said the eight-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Darryl Casanueva and joined by judges Stevan Northcutt and John Badalamenti. “It is undisputed that Ms. Bell meets the requirements set forth in the constitutional provision, and the Legislature was without authority to divest her of that benefit by narrowing the class of individuals eligible for the tax relief.”

Lawmakers and Florida voters have taken numerous steps in recent years to provide benefits to veterans and their families. In 2012, for example, voters also passed a constitutional amendment that expanded a property-tax break for disabled veterans.

The Legislature placed both of those amendments on the 2012 ballot.

Source: News Service of Florida, Jim Saunders