May 16, 2012
The Michigan General Property Tax Act authorizes municipal entities, including cities, townships, villages, schools, and municipal "authorities" to levy taxes real and personal property in Michigan. There are two principal exemptions from part of the taxes that routinely impact our clients. The most commonly invoked exemption is the "personal residence exemption" (a/k/a "homestead exemption). The second important exemption is the "qualified agricultural property" exemption (see, Navigating The Michigan General Property Tax Qualified Agricultural Property Exemption). Both exempt the subject property from the school tax. The mechanics of their application differs somewhat.
There is a lot of misinformation out there, much of it by word of mouth. This is an important exemption, as the school tax tends to be one of the highest taxes levied. So, understanding its applicability is worth a few moments' reading.
The personal residence exemption applies to property which is classified by the tax assessor as "residential property." Classification as "residential," does not by itself qualify the property for the exemption. The owner must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the taxing authority (or – ultimately – the Michigan Department of Treasury), that the property for which they are seeking the exemption is their one, true personal residence.
Obtaining the Exemption
In order to qualify for the principal residence exemption, a homeowner must file an Affidavit of Personal Residence, (Form 2368), which may be obtained on line at the Michigan Government Website (www.michigan.gov/treasury). The affidavit must be filed – in most cases – not later than May 1 of the year the exemption is sought. The Affidavit is filed with the Local Assessor, not with the Treasury Department.
There are instances when a "late" filing can be sought by appearing before the tax board of review (which convenes in most municipalities in July and again in December). It probably makes sense to seek some professional assistance at that point, as there are rules and deadlines that must be carefully observed.
The greatest area of concern is when a residence is purchased after the May 1 deadline. In most instances, the prior homeowner has already filed the affidavit and qualified and the exemption will remain in effect until December 31, after which you may file to meet the May 1 deadline for the following year. The Affidavit need only be filed once and the exemption remains in effect as long as the residence continues to qualify for that owner.
Qualifying For the Exemption
This is the area where the most confusion (and frankly, a fair amount of "license" with the rules) usually arises. This exemption is intended to apply to one personal residence where a resident of Michigan intends to permanently use as their primary home. There are certain indicia that the Department of Treasury (or the local assessor) uses as "proof" of residency. The statutory provision makes clear that it is a matter of intent on the part of the owner. But proof of such intent is sometimes difficult. The authorities will look at things like voter registration address, address on Michigan Driver's License or other Michigan I.D., where the applicant has his or her mail sent, where bills are mailed and the address they use on official tax filing. None of these items alone will be determinative, but they will be used as evidence of intent.
The Michigan Department of Treasury publishes a pdf pamphlet called "Guidelines for Michigan Principal Residence Exemption Program." It is worth noting that in the guidelines, they specifically address the vacation home or cottage issue. Up until just recently, most lakefront vacation property in Michigan was appreciating much more rapidly than suburban or urban residential property. The tax pressure on owners of these properties was enough that many such owners have attempted to make them their personal residence in order to have the exemption apply to their higher value property. Some even attempted to claim both residences as their principal residence. About 10 years back, there was a strong push by taxing authorities to seek out these "transgressors."
The Guidelines make it clear that the state will view this as a matter of reality. In other words, you cannot simply change your driver's license, voter registration and other "indicators," and automatically have the property qualify. You have to demonstrate in a meaningful way that you indeed intend to reside in the property as your principal residence. While there are obviously grey areas (e.g., the "snowbirds," who may spend 6 or more months in a warmer climate), this means that you "live" there – you spend the bulk of your time there.
It is clear that a homeowner is only entitled to one principal residence exemption. You must be a resident of the State of Michigan and you may not have claimed a similar personal residence exemption in another state, country or territory. You cannot have dual residency, for purposes of the exemption.
What if you are husband and wife? State and Federal laws are nothing if not unclear about this distinction. The general approach is that we treat married couples as a single unit. However there are exceptions. For purposes of the principal residence exemption, if a husband and wife file a joint income tax return, they are entitle to one exemption for their "marital unit." However, if they file separately, they may each claim an exemption. Beware, however, that they will still have to demonstrate the "intent" reality discussed above. In most cases, unless the parties are separated, that will be pretty difficult to do.
Much will depend upon the diligence of the local taxing authorities on all of the above issues.
The Ownership Requirement
This requirement may be among the most elusive – and confusing. Like much legislation, the language is not necessarily consistent, nor clear. For example, the General Property Tax Act refers to the term "person." Yet they don't necessarily consistently apply their interpretation. For purposes of the principal residence exemption, "person" is interpreted as its plain meaning, a "human." A residence that has been transferred into a Limited Liability Company, a Partnership, or some other legal entity will cease to be qualified for the principal residence exemption. While this may seem harsh, it is the law in Michigan. Where we see this application cause the most problems is in the family farm arena, where we are often structuring land-holding entities and family limited liability companies and partnerships. Because there are other complex rules and programs affecting farmland, and because the farmstead and family home are often part of a larger tract of land, family estate and succession planning can become problematic and complex, and attention to detail is important in that context.
You do not, however, need to be a 100% owner of the property. The law says a partial owner may claim the exemption (again, subject to demonstrating that it is their one true personal residence). This means joint owners, and holders of life estates may still claim the exemption.
The law does not specify the amount of ownership. This opens the door to some creative tax and estate planning. For example, a child, parent or sibling could legally own a fractional interest (as little as a 1% joint tenancy interest), but reside in the home and claim the exemption. This, combined with the "uncapping" protections we learned about in the Klooster case (see, "Some Family Cottage Strategies In Light of The Klooster Case") may present some very enticing family property succession strategies.
A residence that has been transferred to a grantor-revocable trust also qualifies for the exemption. In that case, the grantor (in most cases) is deemed the "person" who is the owner and entitled to the exemption.
Finally, note that you may claim the exemption if you are a Land Contract purchaser. This makes sense because Michigan Law sees such a purchaser as the "equitable" owner of the property, subject to the security interest of the Land Contract Vendor (the so-called "legal owner").
What Property is Covered?
This is another area which is sometimes susceptible to confusion. Adjacent land parcels are often arbitrarily separated by legal description (e.g., by the way they are acquired by deed) or by tax parcel identification code. They may be separated by roads, ditches, waterways, or other natural or man-made obstructions.
The exemption covers all contiguous property to the occupied residence, as long as it is: (1) classified residential, (2) is vacant, and (3) is not used for non-residential purposes. The Guidelines provide several examples of what qualifies as contiguous. Essentially, it is property which is "touching" the property the primary residence is on. A road, ditch, stream, etc., does not destroy contiguity. Another parcel owned by another that is in between does (there is some thought that the state views a corner-to –corner touching as not contiguous, though I fail to see the logic in that view) .
Separately described or deeded parcels or parcels with separate tax code parcel identification numbers, will all still qualify, as long as they satisfy the contiguity requirement. You need not combine parcels in order to have the exemption. You do, however, need to file separate exemption Affidavits for each separate tax code parcel.
The state is dead-serious about the 3 limitations above. If a contiguous parcel has a separate structure on it, it is not "vacant" and does not qualify for the exemption. If any business use is occurring on the contiguous parcel, at least a portion of it will not qualify. The most common example of this latter occurrence is vacant farmland, which is being farmed for rent. In most cases, it will or can be classified as qualified farmland, which will solve the problem. In other cases, it will be important to seek qualified professional assistance.