TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the case of a Honduras couple that could determine if they and other nonresident homeowners, whether they are from foreign countries or other states, can obtain homestead property tax exemptions.
The decision will affect nonresidents who seek exemptions if they have legal or natural dependents, including minor children or elderly or disabled adults, living in their primary homes who are permanent residents of Florida. The justices did not indicate when they will rule.
"This is not an immigration case," said Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney Melinda Thornton. "This would apply to anyone from out of state."
No one disputed that assertion, but several justices questioned Thornton's views on a state constitutional provision that grants exemptions for homes occupied by permanent resident dependents.
She contended David and Ana Andonie, who came to Florida from Honduras on investment visas, should be denied a 2006 exemption on their $1 million Key Biscayne home despite the fact their three then-minor children were born in Miami, were U.S. citizens and never lived anywhere else.
Arguing on behalf of Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Pedro J. Garcia, Thornton said under common law the children were residents of Honduras because that was the permanent residence of their parents. Therefore, an exemption should not have been allowed, she said.
The county's Value Adjustment Board overruled the appraiser's office and granted the exemption. Garcia is appealing a 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling that affirmed a trial court's ruling upholding the board's decision.
In support of the exemption, David Andonie had submitted a sworn statement saying the children were permanent Florida residents. Thornton argued that wasn't good enough to ensure they would not leave Florida if their parents returned to Honduras.
"The property appraiser really, I think, is here on what-ifs, what if something happens in the future," said the Andonies' lawyer, Daniel A. Weiss.
Chief Justice Charles Canady then noted even permanent residents always have the option of leaving Florida.
"To rely on that to establish ineligibility here seems to be quite bizarre," Canady said. "I'm sure you would agree."
Justice Barbara Pariente said the claim the children were residents of Honduras was "absolutely incredible."
Thornton suggested the parents could have overcome the common law presumption the children were Honduras residents if they had obtained a court order appointing a guardian to take care of them in Florida if the mother and father were to leave the state.
Justice R. Fred Lewis, though, noted there's nothing in the constitution or state law requiring a court order. Thornton acknowledged that and said there were other ways to ensure the children would stay in Florida.
"We're saying that's the cleanest way," she said, later adding that property appraisers should "not be expected to grant or deny homestead exemptions just upon self-serving statements."
Pariente, though, questioned why the sworn statement wasn't good enough, noting there was no evidence of fraud or manipulation.
"I just don't see where the problem is," she said.
While one of the children is 12 and still a minor, the other two now are adults, ages 18 and 19, Weiss said.
The appraisers' office also denied the family's exemption for subsequent tax years, and the adjustment panel continued to overrule those decisions, Thornton said.
Homeowners could get a $25,000 exemption in 2006. Now, they can get an additional $25,000 exemption on nonschool taxes. Another benefit is a 3 percent cap on annual assessment increases for homesteads.
The Florida Association of Property Appraisers has submitted a "friend of the court" brief supporting Garcia's argument. The Florida Department of Revenue has filed a brief siding with the Andonies.
The case is Pedro J. Garcia, etc., et al. v. David Andonie, et al., SC11-554.