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Law that Protects Home from Creditors Gets Test

A S. Tampa home is in a legal fight that may impact interpretation of Fla.’s homestead law. At issue? A 2017 court decision gave the home to a law firm over debts owed.

TAMPA, Fla. – A home on a south Tampa street is tangled in both overgrown vines and a legal battle that could impact how the state’s homestead law is interpreted.

The statute protects homeowners from creditors other than mortgage holders and taxing entities from collecting debt by taking someone’s real estate.

A 2017 court decision gave possession of the 2,500 square foot home to a Tampa law firm that claimed the daughter of the former owner owed the practice more than $330,000.

The decision was upheld on appeal, but Teresa Gaffney claims the homestead rights to the property were taken illegally.

“It is the most important right that we have as citizens,” Gaffney said. “That we get to have our homestead property protected.”

Gaffney said before her father died more than a decade ago, she had paid him $300,000 for the home and established it as her homestead.

Court records state in 2017 Judge Rex Barbas ruled the transfer of the property involving Gaffney and her daughter was “fraudulent.”

Possession was granted to attorney Michael Kangas and his law partner Phillip Bumann, who has since passed away. Gaffney owes the firm $336,000 plus interest, according to court records.

Gaffney denies she owes them any money or that fraud was involved with the transfer. Gaffney and her attorneys also said she never got her day in court “to defend the taking of” the homestead property.

“That is required by law,” Gaffney asserted.

After Barbas’s decision, Gaffney and her daughter were evicted from the home.

The two sides were back at it Tuesday in a Zoom hearing focused on a contempt order against Gaffney for issues that included not providing financial information to the plaintiffs.

Kangas asked Judge James Barton to lock Gaffney up for not cooperating.

“I think the court needs to stick to its guns in the order that was entered in 2022 and make her serve her jail time,” Kangas said.

Kangas also told the court he is concerned Gaffney will not cooperate in the future.

“I don’t want to be back in the same situation where we’re getting the same lack of information,” Kangas said.

Kangas has not responded to requests for comment.

During Tuesday’s hearing Judge Barton gave Gaffney more time to comply with the court order.

Gaffney and her attorneys say if she ultimately loses her homestead rights, it could set a precedent that would impact real estate across Florida.

“This is a larger issue than just me,” Gaffney said. “Any judge can now come in and say, you know we’re not going to have that homestead determination hearing. Your property is now taken. You have to pay the creditors with your homestead property.”

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