Tampa man’s family homestead benefit secured with attorney’s help

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Debra Smietanski

Debra Smietanski

By Stacey Singer DeLoye

After losing his mother to Alzheimer’s disease, a Tampa-area man almost lost the homestead exemption on his family home because he mistakenly assumed he had automatically become the titled property owner and qualified for the exemption upon her death.

After seeking to continue the homestead exemption and being turned away at the county, he sought legal assistance through the Bay Area Volunteer Lawyers Program at Bay Area Legal Services, a Florida Bar Foundation grantee. The program connected him to Debra Smietanski, an attorney with Foley & Lardner in Tampa who is board certified in wills, trusts and estates.

“In order to get the homestead exemption, you have to get the title in his name,” Smietanski said. “This was his home.”

Her client’s mother had been under the care of a court-appointed guardian and died without leaving a will. Having no siblings, her client correctly guessed that he would inherit the property once the guardianship was dissolved, but didn’t realize the title transfer process would not be automatic.

With additional help from Foley & Lardner paralegals Keli Crosland and Rob Mace, the client eventually got clear title.

A complexity common to many estate settlements involved outstanding debt his mother had incurred, without assets to pay them, other than the house. During a two-year statute of limitations creditors can seek to collect from an estate’s assets, Smietanski said. The man had delayed action on the property long enough that only a few months remained before that deadline would pass.

“He wasn’t in the position to just pay the creditors and not have to deal with them,” she added. She advised him to wait out the full two years so that he could obtain clear title. After that, he was able to get his homestead exemption.

The American Bar Association’s Celebrate Pro Bono Week Oct. 23-29, highlights volunteer efforts of lawyers who provide greater access to the legal system through their donated services. The motto of the Bay Area Volunteer Lawyers Program is “Preserving independence, hope and dignity,” and that was the outcome Smietanksi obtained for her client.

Afterwards, he had this to say: “Attorney Smietanski handled my case with such professionalism and knowledge, as if she was a hired attorney. I can never thank and appreciate her enough.”


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