Florida’s homestead law is one of the most generous in the United States. Florida’s Constitution provides that homestead is (1) exemptfrom forced sale; (2) devise and alienation is restricted; and (3) homestead affords tax exemptions. Of primary importance to real estate agents are the restrictions on alienation of homestead property.
Article X, section 4(c) of the Florida Constitution is clear that both spouses must join in a transfer of homestead property. However, when real estate is owned by only one spouse, and homestead status is not obvious, the requirement that both spouses sign a sales contract may be overlooked. This situation arose in Florida and was the subject of an appellate decision known as Taylor v. Maness, 941 So. 2d 559 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).
In the case, a husband (Mr. Maness) entered into a contract to sell a home that he was living in by himself (while his wife temporarily resided elsewhere); title to the home was vested solely in the husband’s name. The contract was not signed by the wife, and she refused to sign the deed at closing. The buyers (Mr. and Mrs. Taylor) sued for specific performance on the contract, fraud in the inducement, and negligent misrepresentation. In considering whether the wife could be forced to specifically perform the contract, the court said that the contract could not be enforced by specific performance because of the constitutional homestead exemption from forced sale. The court determined that the property was homestead property as the permanent residence of the husband and wife; and the wife had a marital homestead interest in the property that protected the property from sale without her consent.
The buyers argued that the failure to file a homestead tax exemption on the property was an indication that the home was not the couple’s homestead. However, the court stated: “failure to claim the homestead tax exemption is not evidence that the property is not in fact homestead.”
The most important aspect of this case for real estate agents is that it emphasizes the importance of ascertaining whether property is a homestead at the outset. A real estate agent (based on the outcome of the case) should never rely on the fact that no homestead tax exemption is filed when determining whether a property may be subject to homestead protections. Because Florida’s homestead law is liberally construed in favor of protecting a family’s home, a thorough inquiry must be made into homestead status any time one spouse attempts to convey real estate without the other spouse’s signature on the sales contract.