Council Tax Liability On Death
Benjamin Franklin once said, “but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But is there anything certain when dealing with council tax for an empty property after the owner has died?
Billing authorities can be left grappling with long term empty properties after their owner has passed away and identifying who, if anyone, is liable to pay council tax in such circumstances can be less than straightforward.
A person is liable to pay council tax as the owner of property that is not otherwise occupied by a resident.
What is meant by owner is defined by section 6 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 as being the person who has a ‘material interest’.
Section 6 of the 1992 Act goes on to define ‘material interest’ as being either a freehold or leasehold interest for a term of 6 months or more.
Class F Exemptions
When the owner of a property dies, and their property is left empty as a result, Class F of the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order 1992 exempts their property from council tax until the expiry of 6 months after a grant of probate or letters of administration have been taken out.
The exemption can be broken. If for example any person occupies the property after the death of the owner they would become liable to pay council tax as a resident.
If the relief applied at the date of death and is broken by someone moving into the property after the death of owner, it cannot be reinstated if the property subsequently becomes empty again. But when the exemption remains in place can anything else be done?
This is a question that is often asked by billing authorities, particularly with regard to long-term empty properties.
Whether the personal representatives of the deceased owner or the beneficiary of an estate can be liable to pay council tax in such circumstances is an issue that has been considered by the Valuation Tribunal.
In ZT v Lewisham LBC  2 WLUK 846 the billing authority, when faced with a long term empty property, had lifted the Class F exemption and demanded payment of council tax from the son of the deceased owner on the basis that the son had assisted the deceased in raising funds to purchase the dwelling as was therefore believed to have an interest in the property.
The tribunal concluded that the owner’s son did not have a freehold interest in the property and that any equitable interest he had did not amount to a material interest for the purposes of the 1992 Act.
The Lewisham decision was applied by the Valuation Tribunal in NR v Maldon DC  7 WLUK 856.
In this second case the billing authority had demanded payment of council tax from the beneficiary of the deceased owner’s estate, who was also the executor of the estate.
Following the Lewisham decision the tribunal concluded that equitable interests, including an interest in the estate of a deceased owner, did not amount to material interest for council tax purposes. As in Lewisham the billing authority was directed to reinstate the Class F exemption.
These decisions are not binding but if the same issue were to become before the tribunal again it will likely be followed as in Maldon. The tribunal has expressed sympathy for the billing authorities faced with situations where property has been left long term empty but has directed that a Class F exemption that applies in such circumstances must be left in situ until such time a grant is obtained.
What else can be done?
The Valuation Tribunal has sent a clear message that the beneficiaries of a deceased property owner will not ordinarily be liable pay council tax for an empty property where a Class F exemption has applied.
Whether anything else can be done to bring the property back into use will depend on the specific circumstances of the case.
For example, councils can consider whether they’re able to become involved in administering the estate where the council is a creditor, or whether any action can be taken based on the condition of the property.
For further information or assistance with a problematic long term empty property please contact Nicky Kinnear, Associate Solicitor on 0333 200 5223 or Nicky.Kinnear@greenhalghkerr.com.