Monday, June 29, 2015

Georgia Court of Appeals rules against tax sale buyers

Two people who bought multiple properties at tax sales in Newton County appealed and then sued to get a lower assessment on those properties. They argued that the amount they bid at the tax sales should have served as the basis for their assessed value the following year. The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled against the buyers.  The court determined that tax sales doesn't constitute an arm's length, bona fide sale because 1) the original owner has a year to redeem the property, and 2) the original owner is not a party to the sale.

In training sessions and conferences I've attended, officials from the state Department of Revenue always emphasize that fair market value is what a willing buyer and a willing seller would agree to at an arm's length sale. In my opinion, a person losing their property at a tax sale isn't normally "willing" nor a "seller." So this seems like a pretty good decision to me. From the Newton Citizen last week:
COVINGTON — The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling in favor of the Newton County Tax Assessor’s Office, affirming that a tax sale does not qualify as an “arm’s length, bona fide” transaction for the purpose of setting property tax values. 
Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig advised commissioners of the court’s ruling at the June 16 Board of Commissioners meeting. “I promised you we would win this case, and now we have,” he said.
According to the Appeals Court, property owners W.D. Ballard and Nancy Mock had purchased 22 parcels of land in Newton County at tax sales during 2012. In April 2013, the Tax Assessor’s Office sent Ballard and Mock the 2013 tax values of the properties, which did not match the 2012 tax sale purchase prices. Ballard and Mock unsuccessfully appealed to the Newton County Board of Equalization and to Newton County Superior Court, which granted summary judgment to the Board of Equalization. 
Ballard and Mock had argued that under Georgia law the 2013 assessed value should have been frozen at the tax sale value. According to the law, ” … the transaction amount of the most recent arm’s length, bona fide sale in any year shall be the maximum allowable fair market value for the next taxable year.” 
However, the trial court noted that the owner of property sold at a tax sale has a one-year right to redeem the property, which would essentially rescind the tax sale, and that the purchaser in a tax sale does not receive a fee simple title to the property. In addition, the court ruled that since the owner is not a participant in the sale, there is no arm’s length, bona fide sale. The Appeals Court upheld those findings. 
According to the Tax Assessor’s Office, Mock and Ballard purchased the 22 parcels, five of which included a house, between March 2012 and December 2012...

If the court had ruled the other way, it could have opened the door to confusion or discrepancies for properties that are sold in tax sales by a county and by a city during the same year.

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