Navigating the Michigan General Property Tax Qualified Agricultural Property Exemption

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Michigan General Property Tax grants two significant exemptions from the levy of taxes by school districts. They are the qualified agricultural property exemption, and the personal residence exemption (see, The Michigan Property Tax Personal Residence Exemption, in Michigan Estate Planning Blog). The agricultural exemption is obviously important to farm clients. However, the personal residence exemption is also important the two interrelate in some unexpected ways. It will be well for a farmland owner to familiarize her/himself with both exemptions and their quirks.
Exemption From School Tax
Both of these exemptions provide essentially the same relief from real property taxation; exemption from the school tax. Because the school tax is generally the largest of taxes levied in a particular locality, this is an important exemption. In the case of farmland owners, there is some real fairness to this in a land-value based tax system. A single farmer may own 100's or even 1000's of acres of land, all subject to Michigan's ad valorem land – based tax. A typical non-agricultural homeowner generally will own their home, but a fractional amount of acreage. Yet each has essentially the same statistical family, and therefore each sends the same statistical number of students through the local school system.
Land that is classified as "qualified agricultural land" in Michigan is automatically exempt from the school tax. With the personal residence exemption, the homeowner must qualify by demonstrating that they intend to live there permanently and must file an Affidavit of Personal Residence with the local assessor. The mere classification of land as residential has no bearing on the exemption (other than only residential classified land qualifies, of all other conditions are satisfied). An owner of qualified agricultural - classified land does not need to file anything. However, if the land is not classified by the local assessor as "qualified agricultural land," and the owner is conducting agricultural activities on it, there is authority under the statute for the owner to file an Affidavit. In the case where an Affidavit needs to be filed, it must be done by the same May 1, deadline as the personal residence exemption.
Another difference between the two exemptions is that, unlike the personal residence exemption, the land may be owned by a corporation, partnership, LLC, Trust or similar entity and still qualify for the exemption. A transfer of farmland to one of these entities for estate or succession planning will not rescind or otherwise harm the exemption. However, the law indicates that if there is a personal residence on the agricultural property, the owner-occupant may not claim a personal residence exemption on another property.
The local assessor may allocate properties that are in "mixed – use," applying a percentage of exemption to the parcel. This can be tricky. The ad valorem tax nature of the tax means that the allocation must be made based on the value of the particular percentage of the property being used, rather than a straight geographical determination. In other words, a 40-acre parcel may have a commercial facility occupying 1 acre. It is not correct to assume that the parcel remains 98% (39/40) exempt. Rather, a fraction of the value of the commercial facility divided by the overall value of the 40 acre parcel would be the correct way to determine the amount remaining qualified and therefore exempt. This is a lot more subjective and perhaps lends itself to a certain amount of uncertainty and lack of clarity.
It is also problematic, in my view, that the guidelines published by the Michigan Department of Treasury ("State Tax Commission Qualified Agricultural Property Exemption Guidelines"), define "agricultural use," but they do not define other uses such as "commercial / industrial" use, even though they make reference to it. One question this leaves open to interpretation is what the effect is of incidental non-farm related use and how much and how often an agricultural facility must be used for activity (e.g., temporary storage of agricultural commodities for a commercial operator).
Practical Concerns
have often said here (and elsewhere) that farmers and farming are unique businesses and landowners. There are a lot of things going on with most farmland parcels. In addition to the "qualified agricultural property" tax classification, farmland is also often subject to Farmland Development Agreement Liens (so-called P.A. 116 Agreements), FSA agreements, wetlands agreements, and conservation easements. Transfer and conveyance of farmland often triggers issues regarding the Michigan Land Division Act, and "uncapping" issues.

More often than not these days, I find myself beginning my conversation with farmers in the "apology mode," explaining that unfortunately, what seemingly used to be relatively simple matters of the proverbial "quit claim deed," have now become very complex real estate transactions. I am not saying that all these rules, liens, taxes and exemptions make transactions unfeasible or impossible. But I am saying that it is important that all the proverbial "I's" and "T's" are dotted and crossed.
typical farm real estate transaction today involves analysis of many issues. In addition to correct legal descriptions and title evidence, we need to determine tax code parcel identification codes to see that they are accurate; P.A. 116 Agreement numbers (if applicable) and expiration dates, and whether a transfer is required; whether the proposed parcel transfer will itself qualify for P.A. 116; whether the transfer of a parcel involves a "division" or is exempt, whether a parcel contains a personal residence on which a personal residence exemption is being claimed; just to name a few of the issues. When transfers occur, we need to file a Property Transfer Affidavit and where applicable, an Affidavit of Agricultural Use to exempt the transaction from and "uncapping" transfer.

Unfortunately, gone are the days when a simple deed from one party to the other would suffice. Competent, experienced professional assistance needs to be sought when there are farm real estate transactions.


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