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SHE CANCELS HER DEATH, RECLAIMS HER TAX EXEMPTION

The Property Appraiser's Office misinterprets her dad's obituary.

The letter was puzzling.

Pinellas County planned to strip the money-saving homestead exemption from Mary Hoffman's property taxes.

When the longtime Seminole resident called the Property Appraiser's Office to complain, the reason for the notice was even more flummoxing.

"But you're dead!" an employee replied.

"Uh, no, I'm not," insisted Hoffman, 50.

However, her father, Leonard Hefter, did die Aug. 2 in Maryland. Hefter, 84, was co-owner of Hoffman's white, single-story home on Martinique Drive.

His death triggered a clerical error by the appraiser's office.

After learning of Hefter's death, an employee mistakenly removed Hoffman as a homeowner, thereby cancelling the homestead exemption, said Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.

If Hoffman hadn't caught the error, her tax bill could have more than tripled to nearly $2,600.

The county's notice was sent Aug. 21, warning that Hoffman's homestead exemption would be removed by Jan. 1.

The error was corrected late last week after Hoffman called the office to say she was, in fact, still living.

Dubov's office followed up with an apology letter Sept. 1. But it only confused matters.

"The letter you received was generated when a notice of death for Mary E. Hoffman was inadvertently applied to your homestead property," it read.

Hoffman searched the Internet. She found no local obituaries for her name. Her father's notice in the St. Petersburg Times only mentioned her first name.

Then it hit her. Death notice?

Dubov's office used an Aug. 18 newspaper item about her father's death to make the decision to remove Hoffman's homestead exemption. Her father's death certificate wasn't filed until Sept. 2, according to court records.

"It's just baffling," Hoffman said later. "It's not like a little small business; it's Pinellas County government."

The error reveals an unusual practice by Dubov's office: Employees routinely change property records based on newspaper obituaries. After finding a dead owner, they send out a notice to families advising of impending tax changes.

Dubov said a staffer routinely spends about 30 minutes a day checking obits and death notices in local newspapers.

State health information can take months to get, Dubov said, and using death notices helps the office aid people more quickly.

Sometimes, out-of-state family members don't realize they will lose exemptions or need to reapply if they take over the residence.

Sometimes, widows or widowers don't realize they can apply for another, $500 exemption until the office sends a letter, she said.

But other large counties such as Hillsborough, Duval and Orange don't use obituaries because of the risk of inaccuracy, appraisal officials said.

"You can't do that," said Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan. His office relies on court records and reports from the state Health Department.

"Obituaries make mistakes. I can tell you, I've read them," he said.

Dubov defended the practice, saying it helps taxpayers save money by learning of tax ramifications early, and it helps the office avoid investigations. Exact statistics were unavailable.

In Duval County, using the obit page isn't regarded as a money saver. The county uses court records because death notices would require too much effort to verify.

"That's very time consuming," said Dana Clark, deputy director of customer service and exemptions.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

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