Michigan Supreme Court Buys Us Another Generation on Real Property Taxes

Mar 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court, in Klooster v. City of Charlevoix, seems to have granted us another "generation" on Michigan Real Property Taxes. In 1994, so-called "Proposal A" placed a cap on the amount of increase in Michigan Real Property taxes a municipality could apply, regardless of how much the actual market value increased, as long as there was not a "transfer of ownership." The devil is always in the detail, and the Klooster case centered on the definition of "transfer of ownership," and the meaning of one of the exceptions laid out in the act.

The Act, which allows the municipality to remove the "cap" in the tax year following a change in ownership, has a rather involved definition of transfer of ownership. It also has a long list of exceptions to the rule allowing the cap to be removed. The Klooster decision focuses on the so-called "joint-tenancy" exception. That exception provides that the creation or termination of a joint tenancy by one who is an original owner does not result in an uncapping event, even though it is a change of ownership. The court defines "original owner" as one who has ownership immediately following the last "uncapping" transfer. The court further explains that death of a joint owner (joint with rights of survivorship) results in a "transfer" by operation of law. So an original owner who has created a joint tenancy with another and then dies, effects a transfer of ownership, but it is within the exception and therefore not an "uncapping" transfer.

There has been some question about this since the exception of the act. Some of us (particularly municipalities) felt that the intent of the act was to prevent an unfair increase in taxation while the same original owners and spouses were alive and owned the property, but the when the last original owner in a generation died or transferred out of ownership, an uncapping transfer occurred. The Klooster opinion makes clear that, as a matter of Michigan law (now anyway J ), we were incorrect. The court carefully dissects the language of the statute and concludes that the uncapping will occur on the next transfer. In other words, my dad and mom could add me as a joint with right of survivorship owner to real property and after both of their deaths (which would be a "transfer of ownership" by operation of law), an "uncapping event" would still not occur until the next transfer (either by deed or by my death) happens. This means the cap can stay on for my lifetime, if no transfer of ownership occurs.

Great care must be taken in planning. Once my parents die, for example, I may want to plan for my own succession. If I add a joint tenant who does not come within one of the "not a transfer" exceptions in the statute (e.g., adding children or siblings), an uncapping transfer occurs (adding a spouse or conveying to a grantor revocable trust would probably not be viewed as a subsequent uncapping event). Also, presumably, on my death, an uncapping transfer occurs. This opens much proverbial "food for thought" in real estate succession planning transactions.

It will also be interesting to see if the Legislature takes any action to change the statutory language the Court interpreted.


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