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Hunt on for false homestead exemptions
Official shares early findings
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Forsyth County News

Conservation use exemption adjusted

The Forsyth County Board of Tax Assessors approved an “umbrella policy” for the conservation use exemption during a meeting Tuesday.

The change, which members approved 5-0, allows for owners of properties receiving the designation to add contiguous parcels to the tax exemption.

“This is a way to give people who buy additional properties a way to add it in,” said Mary Kirkpatrick, tax assessor.

The owner must agree to begin the 10-year minimum use in place, and both property titles must be in the same name, Kirkpatrick said.

She noted that the policy will not help family members who own adjacent parcels if the titles are in different names, which occurs often.

Rather, the policy, which Forsyth modeled after Morgan County, is intended to help farmers who buy a small chunk to expand on their land, she said.

A company investigating possible tax fraud in Forsyth County has found more than a thousand possible false homestead exemption claims in its first few days on the job.

According to Forsyth County Tax Assessor Mary Kirkpatrick, Tax Management Associates has compiled a list of 1,600 residents who are claiming two homesteads, when just one is allowed.

She shared the findings Tuesday during a meeting of the local tax assessors board.

For each instance the service finds that the board agrees to bill, the company would receive a 25 percent cut of the collections.

Kirkpatrick has estimated previously that the service could net the county up to $2.5 million in three years.

Forsyth selected the company in December and approved the contract March 1.

The Charlotte-based company is using its wide-reaching access to records and databases — resources the county doesn’t have — to seek out residents possibly taking advantage of the exemption, Kirkpatrick said.

“The company who’s doing the project has come up with and is searching for people receiving more than one homestead, either within the county, the state or across the country,” she said. “They’re also looking for people who have died and left the homestead exemption on.”

Residents sign an affidavit that they claim only one homestead when they file for the primary residence exemption, Kirkpatrick said.

Cases of dual homesteads should be fairly clear-cut that residents owe those back taxes with penalties and interest, she said.

Some instances have already proved more complex, however.

She asked the board of tax assessors to set some ground rules for determining what constitutes fraud.

The board decided to set a one-year window in place for relatives or members of an estate who haven’t yet transferred the name of the homestead to do so.

Kirkpatrick said she’s seen several cases where siblings leave a property in homestead exemption for years after a parent dies to receive the benefit of lower taxes.

“Forcing them to clean up is a benefit to them,” she said of the one-year policy.

Member Rick O’ Brien said it will make the process fair and equal to all taxpayers in that scenario, while giving them time to get an estate in order.

The board heard a case from family members who recently discovered the homestead exemption for their mother was still in their late father’s name and had no legal paper trail to transfer it.

Members voted 5-0 to approve the woman keeping homestead without penalty, assuming the deed is transferred in one year, as will be the rule for those instances.

Kirkpatrick also briefed the board on another situation that’s more ambiguous, in which a homeowner claimed homestead on one address on the same property, but lived on another.

She said for “honest mistakes,” the office plans to correct the records and “let it go,” but noted that those fraudulently claiming exemptions should be penalized.

“An exemption is a shift of burden to those who don’t need it,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not fair to other taxpayers.”

The board will review all the cases of possible homestead exemption fraud before anyone is billed, she said.