Seniors must apply to renew tax exemptions

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By Ali Elsaffar

Township Assessor

Oak Park senior citizens should have received renewal applications for senior citizen property tax exemptions by now, and will have until Feb. 5 to return them to the Cook County Assessor's Office. Local seniors should feel free to call the Oak Park Township Assessor's Office for help completing the forms.

Eligibility 

There are two senior citizen tax exemptions:

1) The Senior Exemption, available to all seniors regardless of income, reduces property taxes by about $550. It is available to any owner-occupied residential property whose owner was born in 1948 or earlier. 

2) The Senior Freeze provides some seniors with additional savings if the combined income of all members of the household is less than $55,000, and if the senior has been an owner-occupant of the property since Jan. 1, 2012.

The senior applications that have been mailed are for 2013 property taxes, which are paid in calendar year 2014. The savings from the exemptions will appear on the second installment tax bills that will likely be mailed in July of 2014.  

Repaying erroneous exemptions 

A new law requires taxpayers to repay tax savings received from tax exemptions that they are not eligible for. If a senior citizen recently died or moved, the property may not be eligible for a senior exemption this year. 

If the senior resided at the property at any time during 2013, the property will be eligible for the 2013 senior citizen exemptions for taxes paid in calendar year 2014. But the property will not be eligible for senior exemptions on the 2014 taxes (paid in 2015) unless the senior left a surviving spouse who was 65 or older — that spouse must complete an application to continue receiving the senior exemptions. 

If you did not receive mailings 

Homeowners who were born in 1948 turned 65 in 2013, and thus are likely to be eligible for one of the senior exemptions for the first time. But taxpayers who recently turned 65 will not receive application forms when the senior renewal forms are mailed. I encourage those people to call the assessor's office (708-383-8005) to obtain the forms and information necessary to receive senior benefits. The forms are also available online at www.CookCountyAssessor.com. 

Deferring taxes

Struggling seniors can defer payment of their property taxes until their homes or condominiums are sold. The Senior Citizen Tax Deferral Program allows seniors to defer as much as $5,000 of their property tax bill every year.

To qualify for the deferral program, seniors must have annual household income of less than $55,000, have equity in their homes that exceeds the sum of property taxes deferred, and have lived in their homes for three years. Small multifamily properties such as two-flats that generate rental income are not eligible for the program. Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose office administers the program, has set a March 1 deadline for deferral applications.

The tax deferral program is essentially a loan from the state that is assessed simple interest of 6% per year. To assure repayment, a lien is placed on the senior's home that will prevent it from being sold until the loan is paid. 

Having a lien placed on a home is often considered a bad thing. But a home mortgage is also a lien on the home, and no one views mortgages in a negative light. Liens, whether for mortgages or property taxes, are merely designed to ensure that the lent money is repaid.

There are some circumstances, however, where senior citizens might not want a lien on their homes. Seniors uncertain about whether to apply can call the township assessor's office but should also consider discussing the matter with legal advisers, financial advisers or family members.

Those interested in the deferral program should apply for other tax benefits available to senior citizens. If you are eligible for the deferral, you should also be eligible for the senior freeze and the senior homestead exemption. By applying for the other senior benefits, you will reduce your property tax liability, which reduces the deferred tax that will eventually be repaid. 

Seniors who have additional questions, should call me at 708-383-8005.

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