Florida Homestead Descent Examples

Kristen D. Drake, JD, CFP, publishes Coast Law, LLC, an excellent Florida-specific blog focusing on estate planning matters.  Her goal is to is to build a "One-Stop Florida Homestead reference page," and she's off to a great start.  For example, in her blog post entitled Homestead Descent Examples she provides a link to homestead-related case studies prepared by Bruce Stone, one of Florida's most well regarded estate planning attorneys.  Here's the post in its entirety:

Sometimes the best way to understand a complicated issue is with examples. Bruce Stone, a prominent estate planning attorney in Florida (more about Mr. Stone here), presented "What Every Georgia Trusts and Estates Practitioner Needs To Know About Florida Law" and included some excellent homestead descent examples in his materials. He was kind enough to let us post them here. Test your knowledge of homestead descent with these great examples.

Does a spouse have to be on the deed to have homestead rights?

Taylor v. Maness, 941 So.2d 559 (Fla. 3d DCA Nov 15, 2006)

Property rights vs. homestead rights: which wins out in litigation involving homestead property?  That's a no-brainer: homestead rights trump property rights any day of the week.  The linked-to case underscores this general principal by applying it to a real live set of facts with very real economic consequences riding on how the court ruled.

Does the deed control? NO

In this case husband (but not wife) signed a sales contract for the sale of his homestead property located on Marathon Key, Florida (think VERY EXPENSIVE real estate!).  The house was deeded in husband's name alone.  Wife was not consulted, and refused to sign a deed effectuating the sales contract.  Buyer sued to enforce the sales contract.  But buyer didn't just want damages, he also wanted the court to specifically enforce the contract.  Court said NO WAY, and it didn't matter that wife's name wasn't on the deed.  Why? Because spouse's homestead rights trump all else.  The following excerpts should be enough to make the point:

The undisputed facts, which were before the trial court, are as follows. Mr. and Mrs. Maness were married on June 14, 1986. Sometime in September 1986, Mr. Maness purchased a vacant lot located at 180 Ana Court, Marathon, Monroe County, Florida, which was titled solely in the name of “James G. Maness, as a married man” (“Marathon Property”).     .     .     .     .     On or about September 25, 2002, Mr. Maness, as the seller, and the Taylors, as the purchasers, entered into a contract, whereby Mr. Maness agreed to convey the Marathon Property to the Taylors. Mrs. Maness did not execute the contract, nor was she named in the contract. Closing was to take place on or before December 2, 2002. Mrs. Maness, however, refused to execute the deed transferring the Marathon Property to the Taylors, claiming that she has a homestead interest in the Marathon Property, thereby precluding consummation of the contract.

*     *     *     *     *
In reaching our conclusion, we wish to address Mrs. Maness' homestead interest in the Marathon Property. The Taylors correctly point out that Mrs. Maness is not the title owner of the Marathon Property. However, the individual claiming the homestead exemption need not hold fee simple title to the property. Callava v. Feinberg, 864 So.2d 429, 431 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003). Article X, section 4 “does not designate how title to the property is to be held and it does not limit the estate that must be owned, i.e., fee simple, life estate, or some lesser interest.” Stilwell, 810 So.2d at 569. Thus, even if Mrs. Maness owns only a beneficial interest in the Marathon Property, she is entitled to claim a homestead exemption to the forced sale of the property. See Callava, 864 So.2d at 431 (holding that even if divorced wife only owned a beneficial interest and not title interest in the residence constituting her homestead, she was nonetheless entitled to claim a homestead exemption from the forced sale of the property).

Lesson learned:

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously said that it was the "unknown unknowns" that worried him most (see here for the You Tube version).  In litigation involving homestead real property, simply reading the deed tells you very little about the principal issue driving the case.  Knowing this unstated fact in advance may make all the difference in the world.  If your opponent is unaware of this fact, he or she is about to learn why the "unknown unknowns" are the scariest part of practicing law.

Does Florida's homestead protection trump a fraudulent transfer?

Dowling v. Davis, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 1839555 (M.D.Fla. Jun 26, 2007)

Does Florida's homestead exemption from creditor claims extend to cases where all parties concede that the judgment debtor purchased a home in Florida with the intent to hinder creditors?  As explained in this federal court decision, the Florida Supreme Court says YES it does:

Crooks Welcomed:

[T]he Florida Supreme Court has expressly held that “[t]he transfer of nonexempt assets into an exempt homestead with the intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors is not one of the three exceptions to the homestead exemption provided for in article X, section 4.” Havoco of Am., Ltd. v. Hill, 790 So.2d 1018, 1028 (Fla.2001) ( “Havoco I” ) (emphasis added); Havoco of Am., Ltd. v. Hill, 255 F.3d 1321, 1322 (11th Cir.2001) ( “Havoco II” ) (affirming that judgment debtor's purchase of home with intent to hinder creditors did not overcome homestead exemption, based on answer to certified question in Havoco I ). This is precisely what Plaintiff is alleging Defendants sought to accomplish by purchasing the Florida residence. For this reason, Plaintiff's claim fails.

But what about an equitable lien? Don't count on it:

Plaintiff argues that the fraud occurred when Defendants, knowing a judgment was imminent, purchased a house with proceeds that could have been used to satisfy Plaintiff s judgment against Davis. Again, however, the homestead exemption does not contain an express exception for real property that is acquired in Florida for the sole purpose of defeating the claims of out-of-state creditors. Havoco II, 255 F.3d at 1322; Havoco I, 790 So.2d at 1028; Bank Leumi Trust Co. v. Lang, 898 F.Supp. 883, 887 (S.D.Fla.1995); In re Adell, 321 B.R. 562, 569-70 (Bankr.M.D.Fla.2005). Indeed, in one of the primary cases relied upon by Plaintiff, the court specifically distinguished those cases in which a debtor owned the funds-where an equitable lien is not proper-from those cases in which a debtor purchased a residence with fraudulently-obtained funds. In re Fin. Federated Title & Trust, Inc., 273 B.R. 706, 716 (Bankr.S.D.Fla.2001) aff'd 347 F.3d 880 (11th Cir.2003) (affirming imposition of equitable lien where funds were undisputedly obtained through fraudulent Ponzi scheme).FN5

FN5. Although not cited by Plaintiff, one court has imposed an equitable lien where a judgment debtor transferred funds to his daughter and son-in-law to satisfy a mortgage on their residence. Babbit Elecs., Inc. v. Dynascan Corp., 915 F.Supp. 335, 337 (S.D.Fla.1995). The court held that the transfer was made to delay, hinder, and defraud the defendant's judgment creditor in collection of its judgment and that imposition of an equitable lien would not change the position of the daughter and son-in-law. Id. at 338. However, this pre- Havoco I decision appears to be in conflict with the Eleventh Circuit's ultimate holding in Havoco II that the homestead exemption shields a debtor's purchase of a residence with non-exempt funds, even when the purchase is made with the intent to hinder a judgment creditor. Havoco II, 255 F.3d at 1322.

Lesson Learned:

As this case proves -- again -- Florida's homestead laws are almost impenetrable creditor protection shields.  And as I've written about before (see here), getting around this protective wall via an "equitable lien" theory almost never works.  Bottom line: people who admittedly move to Florida for the express purpose of evading their just debts can get away with it.

I have to believe this result is an unintended consequence of Florida's outdated homestead laws.  Until someone decides this is a crisis, I assume we'll be stuck with the status quo.  So if you're looking to defraud your creditors, sunny Florida says "welcome home!"

Part II: Can a co-op be homestead property?

In a comment posted here in connection with Phillips v. Hirshon (a recent 3d DCA opinion holding that a cooperative apartment may not be considered homestead property for the purpose of subjecting it to Florida Statutes regulating the descent of homestead property), Bradenton attorney Jeffrey S. Goethe discussed a case where he successfully argued that Florida's homestead creditor protections apply to cooperative apartments.  The key to possibly reconciling these two divergent results is to recognize the divergent lines of case law that has evolved with respect to each of the three distinct facets of homestead law addressed in Florida's constitution:

In a follow up to his comments, Jeff was kind enough to share a copy of the 11-page legal memorandum he filed in his case and agreed I could post it on the blog for the benefit of others (see here for copy).

Thanks again Jeff.

The New Homestead Trap: Surviving Spouses Are Trapped by Life Estates They No Longer Want or Can Afford

One of the basic building blocks of Florida probate law is the "life estate" in homestead property all surviving spouses are entitled to.  The statutory basis for this rule is found in F.S. 732.401, which provides as follows:

(1) If not devised as permitted by law and the Florida Constitution, the homestead shall descend in the same manner as other intestate property; but if the decedent is survived by a spouse and lineal descendants, the surviving spouse shall take a life estate in the homestead, with a vested remainder to the lineal descendants in being at the time of the decedent's death per stirpes.

(2) Subsection (1) shall not apply to property that the decedent and the surviving spouse owned as tenants by the entirety.

Pretty basic stuff for any Florida probate practitioner.  What may not be so simple is explaining the real life practicalities of a life estate to a surviving widow.  Which is why you may want to keep a copy of The New Homestead Trap: Surviving Spouses Are Trapped by Life Estates They No Longer Want or Can Afford handy.  In this just published article Ft. Lauderdale attorney Jeffrey A. Baskies does a good job of explaining the costs assumed by surviving spouses/life tenants, a point often overlooked by families and their advisers.

Costs Borne by Life Tenants

F.S. §738.801 provides in part that “the provisions of F.S. §738.701-738.705 … shall govern the apportionment of expenses between tenants and remaindermen when no trust has been created….” In the absence of some agreement, those provisions apply to all life estate/remainder situations created by the Florida homestead laws (created by the constitutional restrictions on devise in art. X, §4 of the state’s constitution and F.S. §732.401).

Taken together, these statutes require the life tenant to pay:

  • All of the ordinary expenses incurred in connection with the administration, management, or preservation of property, including ordinary repairs (including condo or homeowners’ association maintenance charges) and regularly recurring taxes (ad valorem property taxes).
  • The interest portion of mortgage payments, if any, on the property.
  • Recurring premiums on insurance covering the loss of a principal asset or the loss of income from or use of the asset.
  • The costs of, or special taxes or assessments for, an improvement representing an addition of value to property shall be paid by the tenant when the improvement is not reasonably expected to outlast the estate of the tenant. In all other cases, a part only shall be paid by the tenant, ascertainable based on the present value of the tenant’s estate (actuarially).

Thus, surviving spouses — who are ostensibly “protected” by the Florida Constitution and statutes (given the “right” to live “rent-free in a homestead”) — are required to bear 100 percent of the burden of the state’s two largest fiscal crises: the escalation in property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. In addition, costs of ordinary upkeep, interest payments on mortgages and, in many cases, virtually all of the special assessments are also the burden of the surviving spouse. Further exacerbating the situation, many widows live in communities which have charged (and are still charging) assessments to repair common areas damaged by the hurricanes the state faced these past few years — with the promise of active hurricane seasons for the foreseeable future.

While the surviving spouses have borne all of these huge increases in their costs of living, the remainder beneficiaries have seen property values double in most of the state (and increase three to five times in some areas) over the past five to 10 years. One hundred percent of that appreciation inures to the benefit of the remainder beneficiaries, while they are not forced to pay for any of these increased expenses.

Contrast the “rent free” use of the property by the widow with the “free ride” the remainder beneficiaries have had on property values, and ask who is being helped and who is being harmed by our homestead “protections”? The costs of property taxes and homeowners’ insurance have skyrocketed at the same time property values have appreciated at a meteoric pace. This situation has exposed in stark relief the discrepancy in treatment and benefits of surviving spouse life tenants and remainder beneficiaries.

Can a co-op be homestead property?

Phillips v. Hirshon, --- So.2d ----, 2007 WL 1263475 (Fla. 3d DCA May 02, 2007)

Article X, section 4(c) of the Florida Constitution, which declares that “homestead shall not be subject to devise if the owner is survived by a spouse or minor child,” is one of the few "forced heirship" rules applicable under Florida law (the only other example of significance would be Florida's spousal elective share rules).  These rules provide an opportunity to challenge a will that is exponentially easier than traditional grounds for challenging a will in Florida (see here).

Children challenge dad's devise to girlfriend on homestead-law grounds

In this case dad devised a life estate in his Key Biscayne penthouse to his girlfriend.  One of his two surviving sons was a minor, so they challenged this devise by arguing that the property was homestead property.  Here's how the 3d DCA summarized their argument:

After their father's death, Joseph and David filed separate petitions to determine homestead. The thrust of their argument to the trial court was that the co-op was homestead property in the hands of their father at the time of his death and therefore not subject to devise by him under Article X, section 4(c) of the Florida Constitution, which declares that “homestead shall not be subject to devise if the owner is survived by a spouse or minor child.” The brothers contend that because David was a minor, the bequest under the will fails and the property passes outside of the estate, and therefore, the brothers now share the father's interest in the co-op on an equal basis as a matter of law.

Court says NO to homestead status for co-op

The trial court didn't buy this argument, and neither did the 3d DCA based on a conflicting Florida Supreme Court opinion.  However, the 3d DCA made clear that it felt the sons should have prevailed, and took the extra step of certifiying the issue to the Florida Supreme Court for reconsideration.  Here's ow the 3d DCA summarized its holding:

The Levine brothers urge that because their father occupied the co-operative apartment under a long-term proprietary lease received in conjunction with his purchase of his interest in the co-op, the property is protected homestead property under Florida law. Applying the principle of stare decisis, we affirm the decision of the trial court on authority of In re Estate of Wartels v. Wartels, 357 So.2d 708 (Fla.1978), which expressly holds “that a cooperative apartment may not be considered homestead property for the purpose of subjecting it to Florida Statutes regulating the descent of homestead property.” Id. at 711 (construing Article X, section 4(a)(1), Fla. Const.). At the same time, we certify to the Florida Supreme Court as a question of great public importance under Article V, section 3(b)(4) of the Florida Constitution, whether its decision in Wartels has continuing vitality in light of subsequent legislative action. We also find certifiable, direct conflict between our decision today and the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in S. Walls, Inc. v. Stilwell Corp., 810 So.2d 566 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002), which construed the same section of Article X, section 4 of the Florida Constitution upon which the Wartels court relied to deny the benefit of homestead to an heir in the devise and descent context of Article X, section 4(c) to nevertheless afford the benefit of homestead protection from a forced sale under Article X, sections 4(a) and 4(b) of the same constitutional provision.

Bankruptcy court says NO to equitable lien on homestead property

The one crack in the almost impenetrable fortress protecting Florida homestead property from creditors is the amorphous "equitable lien" doctrine.  There isn't a lot of case law out there on equitable liens against Florida homestead, so In re Gosman, 2007 WL 707365 (Bankr.S.D.Fla. Mar 05, 2007) should be of interest to anyone whose practice involves homestead issues.

In this case the bankruptcy court said NO to a creditor seeking to impose an equitable lien on $22.5 million in net sales proceeds generated by the sale of former health care executive Abe Gosman's Palm Beach mansion.  The court articulated the following two-part test for determining "the very narrow circumstances warranting the imposition of an equitable lien" on homestead property under Florida law:

  • that the money was obtained fraudulently or through egregious conduct, and
  • that the money obtained was utilized to invest in, purchase or improve the homestead. The Court finds that neither of the two prongs has been satisfied.
Here's how the bankruptcy court summarized Florida's equitable lien case law:

The Florida homestead exemption is construed liberally and the three exceptions to the Florida homestead exemption are construed narrowly and strictly. Havoco of America. Ltd. v. Hill, 790 So.2d 1018 (Fla.2001). A limited legal basis has been established for imposing an equitable lien on homestead. The first case from the Florida Supreme Court to impose an equitable lien determined that the imposition of a lien was proper due to the embezzlement of funds by an employee who, in turn, used the funds to make improvements to the home. Jones v. Carpenter, 106 So. 127 (Fla.1925). The Court in Jones elaborated that if the money had been obtained through a valid contract and then utilized to make home improvements, the imposition of an equitable lien would not be appropriate. Id. In Palm Beach Savings & Loan Association, F .S.A v. Fishbein, 619 So.2d 267 (Fla.1993), the Florida Supreme Court allowed an equitable lien against homestead property wherein monies were obtained fraudulently by use of a forged mortgage instrument and then utilized to satisfy a valid mortgage. In Chauncey v. Dzikowski, 454 F.3d 1292 (11 Cir.2006), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals referenced the standard for imposing an equitable lien by stating that it may be necessary to reach beyond the literal language of the Florida homestead exemption to invoke an equitable lien against homestead property when funds were obtained through fraud or egregious conduct and utilized to invest in, purchase, or improve the homestead. Id. at 1294.

Good news from the bankruptcy front: homestead in a revocable trust remains protected

I previously wrote here about Engelke v. Estate of Engelke, a 4th DCA opinion holding that homestead held in a revocable trust remained exempt from forced sale or lien by judgment creditors pursuant to Article X, Section 4(a) of the Florida Constitution.  The reason why opinions like Engelke are especially interesting for estate planners is because they chip away at the precedential value of In re Bosonetto, 271 B.R. 403 (Bankr.M.D.Fla.2001), a Middle District Bankruptcy Court opinion ruling that homestead property in a revocable trust lost its creditor protection.  Bosonetto has been the subject of heavy criticism every since.

We now have two new Middle District Bankruptcy Court opinions expressly refusing to follow BosonettoIn re Alexander, 346 B.R. 546, 19 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. B 356 (Bankr.M.D.Fla. Jul 25, 2006), and In re Edwards, --- B.R. ----, 2006 WL 3788803 (Bankr.M.D.Fla. Oct 04, 2006).

This is good news for planners, although the issue is not yet dead.  Bosonetto hasn't been overruled.  Until it is, planners should remain cautious.  The following excerpts from Edwards summarize the well-reasoned analyses underlying both opinions:

The issue for determination is whether real property in which a debtor resides qualifies for the Florida homestead exemption when title to the property is held by a revocable trust. The issue is governed by Florida state statutory and case law. Florida opted out of the federal bankruptcy exemption scheme and a debtor filing for bankruptcy protection in Florida must use Florida's state law exemptions. The Florida exemptions include a homestead exemption found at Florida Constitution, Article X, Section 4(a)(1):

(a) There shall be exempt from forced sale under process of any court, and no judgment, decree or execution shall be a lien thereon, except for the payment of taxes and assessments thereon, obligations contracted for house, field or other labor performed on the realty, the following property owned by a natural person:

(1) a homestead, if located outside a municipality, to the extent of one hundred sixty acres of contiguous land and improvements thereon, which shall not be reduced without the owner's consent by reason of subsequent inclusion in a municipality; upon which the exemption shall be limited to the residence of the owner or the owner's family.

Fla. Const. Art. X, § 4 (emphasis added).

*     *     *     *     *

The Trustee relies on the decision In re Bosonetto, 271 B.R. 403 (Bankr.M.D.Fla.2001) in which the Bankruptcy Court held a debtor may not claim real property owned by a trust as exempt homestead property. The great weight of the relevant case law holds to the contrary. Fee simple title of the property is not required, and an equitable or legal interest should afford protection pursuant to the provision.

The Florida Appellate Court ruled in Engelke v. Estate of Engelke, 921 So.2d 693, 696 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004) a revocable trust was constitutionally protected homestead property and could not be used to pay claims and expenses of the grantor's estate. The grantor of the trust retained an ownership interest in the property since the trust was revocable. The trust, due to its revocable nature, was owned by a “natural person” within the meaning of the Florida homestead exemption. The revocable trust only held title to the property, while the grantor retained ownership.

A recent case decided in the Middle District of Florida, In re Alexander, 346 B.R. 546 (Bankr.M.D.Fla.2006) is in agreement holding fee simple title to the property is not necessary to qualify for the homestead exemption.  “... [I]n order to claim property in which the individual resides as exempt it is sufficient that: (1) the individual have a legal or equitable interest which gives the individual the legal right to use and possess the property as a residence; (2) the individual have the intention to make the property his or her homestead; and (3) the individual actually maintain the property as his or her principal residence.” The Bankruptcy Court ruled homestead property titled in a revocable trust can be exempt from a debtor's bankruptcy estate in a Chapter 7 case.

Another estate plan hits the dust: testator's personal property right's lose out to heir's homestead rights

Cutler v. Cutler, --- So.2d ----, 2007 WL 601866 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb 28, 2007)

Homestead is known as Florida’s legal chameleon because it has different meanings depending upon its context.  Here's how the 3d DCA described the three faces of Florida's homestead law in the linked-to opinion:

As the Florida Supreme Court noted in Snyder v. Davis, 699 So.2d 999, 1001-02 (Fla.1997), there are three kinds of homestead with one purpose: preserving the family home for its owner and heirs. The first kind, unrelated to this case, provides homestead with an exemption from taxes. See Art. VII, § 6, Fla. Const. The second protects homestead from forced sale by creditors. Art. X, §§ 4(a)-(b), Fla. Const. The third delineates the restrictions a homestead owner faces when attempting to alienate or devise homestead property. Art. X, § 4(c), Fla. Const.

This case is another example of homestead law derailing a Florida testator's estate plan.  All parties conceded that the homestead property at issue was "freely devisable" under Florida law, and yet the testator's intent was still frustrated by Florida's homestead law.

The estate plan at issue was simple: mom, whose only surviving family was her adult son and daughter, specifically devised 2 pieces of real estate, her home to her daughter and an adjacent vacant lot to her son.  In the event the administrative expenses of her estate exceeded her residuary estate, mom wanted the remaining expenses to be shared equally by son and daughter.  Here's how the 3d DCA described mom's plan:

Edith's [estate] plan [was] that if other available assets are insufficient to satisfy her creditors' claims and the final expenses of her estate upon her death, the residence she devised to Cynthia and the adjacent vacant parcel she devised to her son Edward will abate equally to satisfy those expenses.

Daughter objected to apportioning any probate expenses to her devise of freely-devisable homestead property and the trial court agreed pursuant to the “inuring clause” of Article X, section 4(b) of the Florida Constitution, effectively frustrating mom's clearly expressed testamentary intent.  The following excerpts from the linked-to opinion provide a good summary of the 3d DCA's rationale for upholding the trial court's ruling:

The specific homestead protection at issue in this case is protection against forced transfer for use by an estate after the death of a decedent. Art. X, § 4(b), Fla. Const. To clearly distinguish this particular protection in the Florida Probate Code from other forms of homestead, the Legislature has denominated it as “protected homestead.” See § 731.201(29), Fla. Stat. (2003)(defining “protected homestead as “[that] property described in s. 4(a)(1), Art. X of the State Constitution on which at the death of the owner the exemption inures to the owner's surviving spouse or heirs under s. 4(b), Art X of the State Constitution”).

*     *     *     *     *
Here, we are confronted with two specific devises of property, which, in the general residuary clause of her will, Edith directed should be contingently available to her personal representative, if necessary, to pay the expenses of her estate. See Park Lake Presbyterian Church v. Estate of Henry, 106 So.2d 215, 217 (Fla.1958)(defining a specific devise as “a gift of a particular thing or of a specified part of a testator's estate so described as being capable of distinguishment from all others of the same kind,” and defining a residuary legacy as “a general legacy wherein fall all the assets of the estate after all other legacies have been satisfied and all charges, debts, and costs have been paid”). On their face, these two specific devises appear equal in dignity. But upon closer examination, it is clear that they are not. In the case of the specific devise of the vacant land to Edward, there is no question but that Edith had the legal right to subject this devise to the debts of the estate if she so desired. § 733.805(1) Fla. Stat. (2004)(“Funds or property designated by the will shall be used to pay debts [of the estate] ... to the extent the funds or property is sufficient.”); In re Estate of Potter, 469 So.2d 957, 959 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985). However, as we have learned, the devise to Cynthia was followed by a constitutional exemption from forced sale of her devise to satisfy the expenses of Edith's estate. This constitutionally created benefit is personal to Cynthia, and hers to assert. For reasons of her own, she has determined to do so. We do not consider ourselves liberated to deny her this constitutional benefit.

Lesson learned:

The lesson to be drawn from this case is that the creditor protection aspects of even freely-devisable homestead property will trump all other interests -- including a testator's individual property rights in his or her own home.  This point is made by the Judge Schwartz in his dissent:

The ground of my dissent is aptly stated in the appellant's brief:

When there is no surviving spouse or minor child, as in this case, the decedent's homestead may be freely transferred, gifted, or devised without limitation. Art. X, Section 4(c), Fla. Const.; City National Bank of Fla. v. Tescher, 578 So.2d 701, 703 (Fla.1991). ... If Mrs. Cutler could have left her properties to someone outside of her family, which she could have done, why could she not leave it to her heirs with the provision that the properties be available to satisfy her debts? The answer to this question is simple-she was lawfully entitled to do so.

See also DeMayo v. Chames, 934 So.2d 548, 551 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006) (Shepherd, J., concurring) (persuasively stating view that property owner should have authority to deal with homestead property as she sees fit), review granted, 937 So.2d 122 (Fla. 2006).FN6

FN6. I hope, without confidence, that the majority is not saying that the limitation on the devise would have been okay if it were contained in the same sentence or paragraph as a condition of the devise, but it is not and the testatrix's clearly expressed wishes must be frustrated because it is in a separate provision of the will. If my hope is unjustified, as I write I can hear workers installing the words-in Gothic letters, of course-“All common sense abandon, ye who enter here” over the doors to our courtroom.

I am sympathetic to Judge Schwartz's position, as I previously stated here.

Third DCA Reverses Itself on Homestead Waiver Case

Demayo v. Chames, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 3d DCA Mar 15, 2006)

I previously wrote here about the Third DCA's initial ruling in this case enforcing a charging lien against the debtor's homestead property based on a written waiver. On its own motion the Third DCA subsequently reconsidered the case en banc and then completely reversed itself!
According to this Third DCA opinion even if a person knowingly waives his or her homestead protection against forced sale, such waiver is not enforceable unless it falls within one of exceptions specified in Article X, section 4 of Florida's constitution, which provides in relevant part as follows:

Homestead; exemptions.-- (a) There shall be exempt from forced sale under process of any court, and no judgment, decree or execution shall be a lien thereon, except for the payment of taxes and assessments thereon, obligations contracted for the purchase, improvement or repair thereof, or obligations contracted for house, field or other labor performed on the realty, the following property owned by a natural person.... (Emphasis added.)

The Third DCA was apparently uncomfortable with this outcome, but felt it had no choice under binding Florida Supreme Court precedent.

[Carter's Administrators v. Carter, 20 Fla. 558, 570 (1884)] and [Sherbill v. Miller Mfg. Co., 89 So.2d 28, 31 (Fla.1956)] confirm that Article X, section 4 "protects the homestead against every type of claim and judgment except those specifically mentioned in the constitutional provision itself" and that other than for the purposes stated in this provision, cannot be waived. . . . Because the attempted waiver in this case is unrelated to those purposes stated in Article X, section 4, it is invalid.

Perhaps recognizing the unfairness of the outcome in this case, the Third DCA took the extraordinary step of essentially asking the Florida Supreme Court to overrule itself. More specifically, the Third DCA certified the following question to the Florida Supreme Court as a matter of great public importance:


Yes, It's Safe to Put Homestead Property in a Revocable Trust

Engelke v. Estate of Engelke, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 4th DCA February 8, 2006)

Navigating Florida's homestead-protection laws is one of the primary focus points for estate planning attorneys in this state. There were two Florida Supreme Court opinions in 2005 alone attempting to unravel the thorny probate issues inherent to Florida homestead properties (see here and here).

In this case the 4th DCA addressed one of the most common questions faced by Florida estate planning attorneys: should the homestead property be put into the client's revocable trust? According to the 4th DCA, the answer is an unqualified YES. There has been hesitation in the past to put homestead property into a revocable trust because of an unfortunate Florida bankruptcy-court opinion that stood for the proposition that homestead property in a revocable trust was not owned by a "natural person," thus it lost its creditor protection. As far as I know, every published Florida opinion addressing the same issue since then has ruled the other way. The 4th DCA case linked-to above does the same, directly answering two key estate-planning questions as follows:

  • "We note that in this case while [the decedent's] residence was held in a revocable trust, it was owned by a "natural person" for purposes of the constitutional homestead exemption. Because [the decedent] retained a right of revocation, he was free to revoke the trust at any point in time. Accordingly, he maintained an ownership interest in his residence, even though a revocable trust held title to the property. We therefore conclude that [the decedent's] interest as beneficiary of his own revocable trust would entitle him to constitutional homestead protections." (Emphasis added.)
  • Frequently, as here, the trust contains provisions regarding the payment of expenses of the estate after the settlor's death. We have found no case in which a general direction to pay the estate expenses has trumped the constitutional homestead protections which are the rights of the heirs as much as the decedent. Because revocable trusts are merely will-substitute devices, we see no reason why the reasoning of Thompson v. Laney, precluding use of the homestead to satisfy estate debts, should not apply with equal force when homestead property is transferred through a revocable trust. Therefore, unless the trust specifically directs that the freely devisable homestead be sold, the rights of the heirs attach at the death of decedent, and the property is protected from the claims of all creditors." (Emphasis added.)

Florida Supreme Court on Freely Devisable Homestead Property

McEnderfer v. Keefe, 2006 WL 129320 (Fla. Jan 19, 2006)

In 2005 I wrote here about the Florida Supreme Court's decision in Warburton construing Florida's homestead laws as applicable to otherwise freely devisable homestead property. This was a companion case to the 2005 decision, and the Court merely restates its earlier position.

This Court recently quashed Warburton and answered the certified question in the negative. We therefore answer the certified question in this case in the negative and hold that where a decedent is not survived by a spouse or minor children, the decedent's homestead property passes to the residuary devisees, not the general devisees, unless there is a specific testamentary disposition ordering the property to be sold and the proceeds made a part of the general estate. See McKean v. Warburton, 30 Fla. L. Weekly S613, --- So.2d ----, 2005 WL 2155180 (Fla. Sept. 8, 2005).

The following briefs were filed with the Court in this case:

Third DCA Enforces Waiver of Homestead Rights to Pay Attorney's Fees

Demayo v. Chames, 2005 WL 3180187, 30 Fla. L. Weekly D2692 (Fla. 3d DCA Nov 30, 2005)

In December 2002 Henry DeMayo retained Deborah Chames and her law firm, Heller and Chames, P.A., to represent him in a post-dissolution proceeding to modify his child support and alimony obligations. The retainer agreement included the following clause:

It is specifically agreed that Heller & Chames, P.A. shall have and is hereby granted all general, possessory and retaining liens and all equitable, special and attorney's charging liens upon the client's interests in any and all real and personal property within the jurisdiction of the court for any balance due, owing and unpaid as well as a lien in any recovery whether by settlement or trial; and such lien or liens shall be superior to any other lien subsequent to the date hereof and that the client hereby knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waives his rights to assert his homestead exemption in the event a charging lien is obtained to secure the balance of attorney's fees and costs. (Emphasis added.)

In October 2003 Miami-Dade Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. granted Heller and Chames' request to withdraw from representing Mr. DeMayo and shortly thereafter entered a final judgment in the sum of $33,207.76 in favor of the law firm. The trial court expressly enforced the waiver provision of the retainer agreement.

On appeal, the Third DCA upheld the trial court's ruling on the following grounds:

[W]e see no reason why an owner of homestead property should not be able to waive [his constitutional right under Article X, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution against divestment of homestead property via a forced sale] if he so desires. As the Florida Supreme Court stated in Caggiano, 605 So.2d at 59,"the homestead exemption ··· was intended simply to guarantee that the homestead would be preserved against any involuntary divestiture by the courts····" See also Havoco, 790 So.2d at 1022 ("The homestead guarantee uses broad language protecting the homestead from involuntary divestiture····"). Absent a plain and unambiguous statement in the Florida Constitution to the contrary, we decline to imply a prohibition against a voluntary divestiture of one's constitutional right to homestead protection.

Warning: see this post: on is own motion Third DCA reconsidered this case en banc and then completely reversed itself!

Can a Personal Representative Sell Freely Devisable Homestead Property?

Harrell v. Snyder, 2005 WL 2899461 (Fla. 5th DCA Nov. 4, 2005)

In this case, the decedent had divorced his wife several years before his death, but never got around to changing his will. So when he died, his ex-wife became personal representative of his estate under the terms of his last will (although she was deemed to have predeceased him for purposes of the will's dispositive provisions). The decedent was not survived by any minor children and had not remarried prior to death, so his homestead property was freely devisable . . . or was it?

Brevard County Judge Kerry I. Evander ruled that the personal representative had the authority to both take control of the freely-devisable homestead property and to sell it. The Fifth DCA disagreed, holding as follows:

  • Under F.S. § 733.608(2), a trial court MAY authorize a personal representative to take possession of homestead property to preserve it for the heirs.
  • This same statute does NOT grant to a personal representative the power to sell such property.

Bottom line, in the absence of specific instructions authorizing the personal representative to sell freely-devisable homestead property, such property passes to the residuary beneficiaries of the decedent's estate. In an opinion I wrote about here, the Florida Supreme Court provided the following directive regarding the sale of freely-devisable homestead property:

We therefore . . . hold that where a decedent is not survived by a spouse or minor children, the decedent's homestead property passes to the residuary devisees, not the general devisees, unless there is a specific testamentary disposition ordering the property to be sold and the proceeds made a part of the general estate.


McKean v. Warburton, 2005 WL 2155180 (Fla. September 8, 2005) (4th DCA Reversed)

REVISED OPINION: McKean v. Warburton, 2005 WL 3601898 (Fla. September 8, 2005)

The Florida Supreme Court reversed this Fourth DCA decision permitting the distribution of freely devisable homestead property to satisfy a preresiduary bequest. For the reasons discussed here, I think the Florida Supreme Court got this one wrong, turning what should be a benefit, i.e., Florida's homestead protection laws, into one very big trap for the unwary.

In light of skyrocketing real estate values in Florida, for most Florida homeowners, their single most valuable asset is their home. If a homeowner is survived by a spouse or minor children, his or her residence is protected homestead property under Florida's Constitution (Art. X, § 4(c)) and Probate Code (F.S. § 731.201(29)), and thus not subject to devise pursuant to F.S. § 732.4015. However, if the homeowner's residence is NOT protected homestead property, one might be forgiven for assuming that the residence was "freely" devisable.

Not so fast says the Florida Supreme Court. If a homeowner that expects NOT to be survived by a spouse or minor children wants to make sure that his or her single most valuable asset at death can be used to satisfy pre-residuary bequests, the Florida Supreme Court's holding in this case will require that the homeowner specifically provide in his or her Will that the homestead property be sold and added to the general probate estate. Specifically, the Florida Supreme Court summed up its holding in this case as follows:

We therefore . . . hold that where a decedent is not survived by a spouse or minor children, the decedent's homestead property passes to the residuary devisees, not the general devisees, unless there is a specific testamentary disposition ordering the property to be sold and the proceeds made a part of the general estate.

The following appellate briefs were filed with the Florida Supreme Court for this case:

"Dear Abby" Column: Wife Discovers Man's Will Would Leave Her Homeless

Who would have thought that "Dear Abby" could teach us something about practicing trusts and estates law in Florida? Read the following exchange (also available here) and ask yourself three questions:

  • Assuming the estate planning attorney described below only represented the husband, did the attorney violate his confidentiality obligations under Florida Ethics Rule 4-1.6? Answer: Yes.
  • Under Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 95-4, could the estate planning attorney represent both husband and wife in the scenario described below? Answer: No.
  • Is this type of behavior great advertising for Florida's homestead protection laws and spousal elective share rights? Answer: Yes!!!

DEAR ABBY: My husband, "Girard," and I have been married two years. We both have children from previous marriages. Girard always told me I would have a home if I outlived him, even though his children will eventually inherit the property.

One day I asked Girard if it was in the will, and he said no, but that he and his children "had discussed it." When I asked him to put it on paper, he agreed. His attorney drafted a document for him to sign. After it had laid around the house for more than a week, Girard told me he had lost it. I reminded him to get another copy, sign and return it. After two more weeks passed with no signed document, Girard told me his attorney was "busy" and "would get to it when he could."

I decided to call the attorney myself. Well, you guessed it. I was told the papers had been executed. When I confronted Girard he admitted he had lied and promised to have the will done over. When I looked at the document he had signed, I saw that Girard was giving me 90 days to get out of the house after his death.

I was upset, so he tore up the document. Am I being unreasonable? I am 76, and he is 84. -- DOESN'T WANT TO BE HOMELESS IN BATON ROUGE

DEAR DOESN'T: It's not unreasonable to want a roof over your head should your husband predecease you. Thank heavens you found out now what was planned for you, rather than being hit with it while you were helpless and grieving. Now that you know how your husband thinks, consult an attorney of your own and find out exactly what your rights are as a wife in the state of Louisiana. The law can vary from state to state, and it is extremely important that you know what you are entitled to.

Source: Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof. Blog

DCAs in conflict . . . can freely devisable homestead property be used to satisfy pre-residuary bequests? Fourth DCA says YES, Second DCA says NO, Florida Supreme Court ruling awaited

Estate of Mahaney v. Keefe, 2005 WL 924264 (Fla. 2 DCA April 22, 2005) (Trial Court Affirmed)

It is not uncommon for a person's single largest asset at death to be his homestead property. This is exactly what happened in the just decided Second DCA case, Estate of Mahaney v. Keefe (other than her home, decedent owned no other property of any value), and in the Fourth DCA case decided last year, Warburton v. McKean, 29 Fla. L. Weekly D1411 (June 9, 2004) (other than a condominium sold for $141,000, the decedent's estate consisted of only nominal assets valued at $10,000).

The question faced by both courts was whether freely-devisable homestead property could be used to satisfy pre-residuary bequests. The Fourth DCA said yes, the Second DCA said no. My understanding is that the Warburton case was heard by the Florida Supreme Court in early 2005, so we should have some resolution to this conflict in the near future. For the record, based on the basic principal that "freely devisable" homestead property should be controlled by a person's will just like any other freely devisable asset, and the 1991 Florida Supreme Court ruling in City Nat'l Bank of Fla. v. Tescher, I think the Fourth DCA got it right in Warburton.

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Why "Trust Me" Estate Planning Can Be Disastrous When it Comes to Homestead Property

Collinson v. Miller, 2005 WL 840188 (Fla. 2 DCA April 13, 2005) (TRIAL COURT REVERSED)

This case should be kept in your files and shared with clients who would rather skip any type of formalized planning for what is in all likelihood their single largest asset - their homestead property - and opt instead for some sort of unwritten "trust me" estate plan. In terms of technical guidance, you may also want to keep this one on the shelf and refer back to it the next time you need to wade into the legal thicket surrounding exactly what "constructive trusts" are, when they are used, and when they don't apply.

This case involved a second marriage where both spouses had children from previous marriages (this fact alone should instantly trigger alarm bells). "Husband" purchased waterfront property and built a home on the property. The idea was that if "Wife" survived Husband, she would be able to use the home for the rest of her, but at her death the house (which was valued at over $2.2 million in Wife's estate) would go to Husband's children.

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Adult Step-Son Entitled to Inherit Protected Homestead Property

Traeger v. Credit First Nat. Ass'n, 864 So.2d 1188 (Fla. 5th DCA Jan. 9, 2004) (TRIAL COURT REVERSED)

The decedent was not survived by a spouse or minor children. The decedent's last will and testament devised her homestead property, a condominium unit in Ponce Inlet, Florida, to her adult step son and her adult natural daughter. The adult step son and her adult natural daughter, as co-personal representatives of the estate, petitioned the court to determine the homestead status of the condominium unit and asserted their belief that the property descended to both of them as protected homestead property. Circuit Court Judge C. McFerrin Smith III ruled that because the decedent's adult step-son occupied a lower class under Section 732.103, Florida's intestacy statute, his one-half share of the condominium property was not entitled homestead protection, while the surviving natural daughter's share of the condominium was entitled to such protection.

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