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PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact Florida: Did Wendy's founder flee Ohio for Florida while on his deathbed?

A legislator in Ohio trying to repeal that state's death tax once again is proving that every story somehow, someway has a connection to Florida.

State Rep. Jay Hottinger, a leader of the drive to repeal the tax in Ohio's General Assembly, said a "shockingly high number" of residents leave that state because of the tax.

That list includes Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's restaurants, Hottinger said.

He fled Ohio for Florida — on his deathbed.

"Dave Thomas left the state literally on his deathbed to avoid the estate tax," Hottinger said during an appearance on Northeast Ohio Public Radio.

PolitiFact Ohio was stirred, and PolitiFact Florida was curious.

Did Thomas make a dramatic dash for the border in a souped-up medical van?

Did Florida receive the wealthy restaurateur like a political refugee?

Wanting to know more, we called Hottinger's office for details. When staff didn't get back to us, we searched on our own.

We found a less dramatic story.

Thomas died in 2002 after a decadelong battle with liver cancer at his home in Fort Lauderdale. He had lived there since 1982, when he moved to Florida after retiring as CEO of Wendy's at age 49. Prior to that, he had lived in Ohio for 20 years.

If his primary goal at the time of his move was to limit the tax exposure his estate would have after his death, he must have been pleasantly surprised to discover that he also gained the year-round ability to play golf (which he loved) and to cruise on his 90-foot yacht, the I. Lorraine (named for his wife), which he was able to dock at his home.

A generous philanthropist, particularly in the interests of children's welfare, medicine and education, Thomas supported (and established) a number of organizations and causes in Florida, as he continued to do in Ohio and elsewhere.

He said his greatest regret was not finishing high school, and in 1993 he hired a tutor and passed the GED exam. Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale made him part of its senior class, and awarded him his high school diploma. He and his wife were king and queen of the senior prom, and Thomas was voted "Most Likely to Succeed."

Legal residency is not something that can be established by deathbed conversion. Nor is it determined solely by physical presence.

The point is that Thomas, an adoptee who was born in New Jersey and moved constantly as a boy, spending significant periods in Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana, was no mere Florida visitor or latecomer. Though he still had Ohio homes at Buckeye Lake and in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, he registered to vote in Florida, not as an absentee in Ohio, in 1988.

There's also evidence that Thomas (who was survived by his wife, five children and 16 grandchildren) knew a thing or two about taxes, making us doubt that he would have left tax and estate planning to the eleventh hour.

Gov. Bob Taft credited his support for getting passage of a $500 adoption credit on Ohio income taxes in 1999, and President Bill Clinton gave him credit in 1996 for a federal law giving parents a one-time tax credit of $5,000 when they adopt a child.

There are other reasons to be skeptical of the claim about Thomas.

In examining claims about estate taxes elsewhere, our colleagues at PolitiFact Rhode Island found research reporting that estate taxes have little or no impact on the flow of people from one state to another.

The National Tax Journal in 2006 published "State 'Death' Taxes and Elderly Migration — The Chicken or the Egg?" whose authors found no evidence that the elderly were responding to changes in estate taxes.

Kail Padquitt, staff economist for the Tax Foundation, a think tank that studies federal and state tax policies, told PolitiFact he hasn't seen any proof that the prospect of paying estate taxes drives people to move.

And if all this wasn't enough, there's another key fact to consider.

Hottinger's claim was that Thomas fled the state "literally on his death bed, to avoid estate tax." That clearly isn't the case, unless he lingered 20 years before passing. And at that, it would have been three years too soon.

Until 2005 (three years after Thomas' death), Florida also had an estate tax.

Hottinger's statement isn't just inaccurate, it's also ridiculous. If Thomas ran Burger King, we'd say it was a whopper worthy of flame-broiling. That's why we rate it Pants on Fire!

The statement

Says Wendy's founder Dave Thomas fled Ohio for Florida "literally on his deathbed" to avoid the estate tax.

Ohio state Rep. Jay Hottinger, in comments on Ohio radio.

The ruling

Thomas moved to Florida 20 years before he died, and Florida still had an estate tax when he passed away. This claim is a whopper (too bad that's not a Wendy's thing). — Pants on Fire!

PolitiFact Florida: Did Wendy's founder flee Ohio for Florida while on his deathbed? 03/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 10:30pm]
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