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Pay Property Taxes First and Dispute Bill Later

Is the amount too high? In someone else's name? Never arrived? Honor your deadlines before pursuing your quibbles.


It's property tax time again, and the region's treasurer-tax collectors are gearing up for the annual onslaught of calls from property owners complaining that they didn't get their tax bills or insisting they really did mail that check in on time. Honest.

By now, most Southern California property owners should have received their 2000-2001 property tax bills, according to Dave Collins, assistant treasurer and tax collector for Los Angeles County. Bills started going out at the end of September, and the rest will be mailed by Nov. 1.

To avoid penalties and interest charges, a homeowner must be sure that the first installment of the tax bill, even if disputed, is postmarked no later than Dec. 11. The second installment must be postmarked by April 10, 2001.

"The No. 1 problem we get at the tax collector's office is the 'I didn't get the bill' problem," Collins said. "Even if you don't get a tax bill, it's not an excuse to not pay it."

Section 2610.5 of the revenue and taxation code states: "Failure to receive a tax bill shall not relieve the lien of taxes nor shall it prevent the imposition of penalties imposed by this code." Even if the bill arrives with the prior owner's name on it; even if the bill seems too high; even if it never arrives.

Collins recommends that owners pay disputed tax bills first and pursue discrepancies later. He also says that anyone who does not receive a bill by Nov. 5 should call the treasurer-tax collector's office for a substitute.

Jeff Gordon certainly wishes he had done that. Thinking he had paid the current and back taxes on a property he had sold, then won back in a foreclosure proceeding, the Los Angeles homeowner was angry after receiving a delinquent notice earlier this year that charged him penalties on a bill he said he never received.

"That tax bill never came to my house, so how could I pay it?" he asked. "I didn't get any consideration from the county when I went through my problem."

Collins said that the law is explicitly and simply stated in the tax code. And, despite a yearly reminder about property taxes on radio, television and in escrow-office mailers that explain owners' obligations, the tax collector's office is swamped annually with calls, usually from new homeowners complaining that their tax bills never arrived.

When properties change hands--as about 100,000 of Los Angeles County's 2.3 million properties do every year--some of the name and address changes don't get posted on the tax collector's roll before the bills are typed and mailed. Therefore, tax bills sometimes are forwarded to the previous owners, who often throw them out.

"Property taxes accrue to the property, not the owners," Collins said. "Whoever owns the property has the obligation to pay, whether your name is on the bill or not." It is the responsibility of the owners, he said, to make sure they get the bill.

Collins also cautioned homeowners about problems that arise with impound accounts, an arrangement in which money that goes toward taxes is included in the owner's monthly mortgage payments. The bank pays the taxes for the owners, who receive a yearly "information bill" that looks like a tax bill but contains no payment stub.

Often, homeowners mistakenly send a payment in with their information bills, inadvertently paying twice. The tax collector sends refunds when that occurs.

Also, some owners with impound accounts are unaware that after their home loans are paid off, the bank no longer pays the property taxes; that obligation reverts to the property owner. In that case, the owner should get a "substitute bill" from the tax collector's office or send in the payment with the "information bill."

In other cases, home loans are sold to banks that do not service impound accounts, and property owners, uninformed of that change, are surprised when delinquent tax bills arrive in the mail with penalties tacked on. Experts recommend that when home loans are sold, property owners make sure their impound accounts are intact. If they are not, owners should ask the tax collector's office for substitute bills.

Some property owners will receive "supplemental" tax bills during the year, reflecting the difference between the previously assessed value of one's property and the current assessed value. This bill is an additional, not a substitute, tax bill. Both must be paid by their deadlines.

Owners with impound accounts should either pay their supplemental tax bills or, if they have impound accounts, contact their lenders and arrange for payment. They should not simply assume that the bank will pay. Banks don't receive those bills.

Property owners who receive tax bills that seem too high should pay, then petition the assessor's office for a correction, said Gil Parisi, special assistant to the Los Angeles County assessor. Petitions are available at any of the county assessor's offices or online. They should not be mailed with tax bills.

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