By Chris Kramer
Delores Atwood, 69, currently lives in a FEMA trailer outside of a Katrina damaged home in Slidell, Louisiana-a home that may or may not belong to her. Her husband, Kermit, who is 71, lives with relatives because he is on a respirator.
The Atwoods lived in the home for many years before hurricane Katrina knocked holes in it and made it basically uninhabitable. They paid off their mortgage in 1968 and never dreamed that they'd lose their house in a tax sale, especially since their property was exempt from property taxes.
Because of a tax notice for $1.63 that they never received back in 1997, the Atwoods are in a legal battle to keep their home.
The Atwoods for many years did not owe property taxes on their home because it had a rural route address that made it exempt. When the new 911 system was implemented in the parish, their address changed. No one informed them that their home and property lost its tax exempt status when they got their new 911 address.
They never notified the tax assessor's office about their change of address. Why would they? The home was, or so they believed, exempt from property taxes.
The assessor's office also failed to correct the Atwood's address in their system on their own, and as a result the tax bill totaling $1.63 was sent to their old, and invalid, address.
The Atwood's 4 bedroom, 2 bath house was sold in 1997 at a tax auction because of the unpaid tax bill. The home was purchased by American Land Investments for the $1.63 back taxes plus 10 cents interest and $125.00 in costs associated with the sale. Jamie Land Co. bought the house from American Land Investments and is suing for full ownership of the elderly couple's home.
The Atwoods never realized that home had been sold until 2000. Mrs. Atwood says she found out about 7 days after the redemption period had expired. During the three year redemption period the Atwoods would have been able to pay the taxes and void the tax sale, if they would have only known anything about the situation.
When she discovered what had happened, Delores Atwood notified the sheriff's and tax assessor's offices that she never received a bill or notice from them and knew nothing about her home being sold at the tax auction.
Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core was sympathetic about what had happened to the Atwoods and was able to get the Louisiana Tax Commission to nullify the sale because the tax bill had been mailed to a defunct address and returned to the sheriff's office as undeliverable.
The Atwoods thought that was the last they would ever hear of it. With their new address now on file at the tax assessor's office they would be sure that they got the tax notices.
Two years later, the Atwoods decided that they would sell their house. They put it up for sale and got an offer on it. That's when they discovered they were being sued about ownership of the house and were unable to sell it until the pending litigation was over.
James A. Lindsay II of Jamie Land Co. had filed lawsuits against the Atwoods and the Tax Commission when he learned that the tax sale had been nullified. He argued that the Tax Commission had no legal right to declare the sale null and void after the redemption period had expired.
The Tax Commission's attorneys aggressively defended the commission's decision to cancel the sale and mark it null and void. The sympathetic tax assessor even talked an attorney into representing the Atwoods in the legal battle to keep their home.
The Atwoods won a legal victory in 2006, when state Judge Patricia Hedges ruled that the Tax Commission was correct in their nullification of sale. She found that the title to the property belongs to the Atwoods.
James A. Lindsay II of Jamie Land Co. doesn't give up that easily. He says he understands that Mrs. Atwood is angry about the sale but she should have paid her taxes. Perhaps he doesn't realize that had she known that they owed $1.63 she would have been happy to pay the tax bill.
He appealed Judge Hedge's decision. Later the case was heard by Louisiana's 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. A three judge panel upheld Judge Hedges's decision 2-1. Attorneys for Jamie Land Co. asked the court to rehear the case, and their request was denied.
The ordeal is still not over for the Atwoods, and may not be any time soon. Jamie Land Co. plans to ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to hear the case.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Atwood continues to live in the trailer outside her hurricane damaged home. The couple did not have insurance on the home and are unable to get a mortgage loan or assistance to repair it because they do not have a clear title to the property.
Retirement just isn't supposed to be like this. I'm sure Mr. And Mrs. Atwood would agree.
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