Benjamin Franklin once said, “There is nothing certain except death and taxes.” As the economy has declined, so has the ability of individuals to pay their real estate taxes. If an individual fails to pay their Missouri real property taxes for three consecutive years, his or her property is subject to tax sale. The tax sale process occurs at the courthouse and involves, in Missouri, the collector of revenue and the local sheriff, who actually sells the property. At the sale, the sheriff must show that the property owner has been provided sufficient notice of the impending sale. Once sold, the purchaser must then confirm the sale within the same county court in which the property is situated. While this may seem to be a straightforward process, the issue of what is sufficient notice to the property owner has come under scrutiny.
Under Missouri law, two separate statutes govern tax sales, depending on where the property is located. Chapter 140 of the Missouri Revised Statutes governs tax sales within St. Louis County and other surrounding counties, while Chapter 92 of the Missouri Revised Statutes governs tax sales in larger cities in Missouri such as St. Louis and Kansas City.
The main distinction between the two statutes is who is responsible for providing notice and what is required for sufficient notice. First, under Chapter 140 the onus of providing sufficient notice of the tax sale is placed on the purchasing party. Sufficient notice requires that notice be given to the “last known available address,” whereby the purchaser must use due diligence to notify the previous owner of both the sale and the confirmation of the tax sale. In contrast, in the City of St. Louis, Chapter 92 R.S. Mo., provides that the sheriff must provide sufficient notice to the previous owner of the tax sale.
What is considered sufficient has recently been decided in In re Foreclosures of Liens for Delinquent Land Taxes by Action v. Bhatti, (Mo. Mar. 1, 2011). In Bhatti, the previous owner failed to pay the outstanding taxes on the property (located in the City of St. Louis) prior to the tax sale, the property was sold and the purchasing party then confirmed the tax sale. At issue was the notice requirements and whether the previous owner’s due process rights were deprived when he failed to receive notice of the sale or the confirmation. The previous owner argued that the sheriff could have used additional reasonable methods to locate the previous owner and thus, the notice was insufficient. The Missouri Supreme Court held that “without knowledge that the notice was not reasonably calculated under these circumstances to apprise the owner, the sheriff was not required to take any further steps to notify the owner.”
While this decision may not seem monumental to most, the issue of notice and tax sale has been a hotly debated topic. The City of St. Louis has recently seen an increase in the number of homes sold by the sheriff due to delinquent taxes. As the number of properties sold increases, so does the aggregate cost of the sale to the sheriff. Right or wrong, the Bhatti decision limits the costs of the tax sale by requiring only a notice be sent, not that the notice be received. Furthermore, the Bhatti decision makes it clear that the only reason to set aside a tax sale is by showing that the sheriff had knowledge of an insufficient notice. While this may be a difficult hurdle to prove, it is not impossible.