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Volume 11 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 96

Opinions of Counsel index

Assessment roll (designation of owner) (life estate - mobile home) - Real Property Tax Law, § 502; Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 2104:

It is at least theoretically possible that the purported owner of a life tenancy in a mobile home could present proof sufficient to establish such an interest. Proving such interest is difficult, especially as to those mobile homes manufactured since July 1, 1994, which are transferable by means of a certificate of title from the Department of Motor Vehicles that do not accommodate such a limited ownership interest.

We have received an inquiry as to life tenancies in manufactured homes. The requester notes that such homes are considered personal property for some purposes, and that newer manufactured homes are transferred by means of a bill of sale and certificate of title from the Department of Motor Vehicles. He asks if an instrument satisfying the requirements we outlined in 10 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 55 would suffice for granting or reserving a life estate. {1}

By “manufactured home,” we assume that reference is being made to those structures, referred to as “mobile homes,” and defined to be real property in section 102(12)(g) of the Real Property Tax Law:

Forms of housing adaptable to motivation by a power connected thereto, commonly called “trailers” or “mobile homes”, which are or can be used for residential, business, commercial or office purposes, except those (1) located within the boundaries of an assessing unit for less than sixty days, (2) unoccupied and for sale or (3) “recreational vehicles” that are four hundred square feet or less in size, self propelled or towable by an automobile or light duty truck and used as temporary living quarters for recreational, camping, travel or seasonal use.***

Although we recognize that other statutes now refer to “manufactured homes,” sometimes in addition to “mobile homes” (e.g., Real Property Law, § 233), for purposes of this opinion, we will use the RPTL terminology.

While mobile homes may constitute real property for purposes of real property taxation, they are quite unique. For instance, it is correct that legal title to mobile homes manufactured since July 1, 1994 are transferable by means of certificates of title issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (Vehicle and Traffic Law, §§ 2104, 2102(19)). Also, they may be subjected to sales tax when sold even though, as explained above, they also may be subjected to real property taxation (8 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 24).

As one court has stated:

Mobile home ownership is unique in that it combines aspects of both home ownership and tenancy. Most mobile home owners own their mobile homes but rent a site within a mobile home park upon which their home is situated. Although their homes are called “mobile”, 96% of the so-called “mobile homes” are never moved from their initial siting due to the high cost and physical difficulty of relocation (Ba Mar, Inc. v. County of Rockland, 164 A.D.2d 605, 608-09, 566 N.Y.S.2d 298, 300 (2d Dept., 1991)).

Another court stated, “Plaintiffs claim that the trailer is not a building because it is something mobile. Mobile it was when used upon the highway, but mobility ceased when it was removed from the highway, attached to the soil and occupied as living quarters. A metamorphosis has occurred; the mobile vehicle has become a fixed residence” (Corning v. Town of Ontario, 204 Misc. 38, 40, 121 N.Y.S.2d 288, 291-92 (Sup.Ct., Wayne Co., 1953)).

We have frequently discussed life tenancies as they relate to real property taxation issues, including exemption eligibility (e.g., 3 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 45; 9 id. Nos. 41, 49, 52; 10 Op.Counsel SBRPS Nos. 20, 55, 58, 102). Simply put, a life tenant of real property is its owner for purposes of real property taxation and it is the exemption eligibility of the life tenant that must be considered in exemption administration (see, Board of Education, Hewlett-Woodmere Union Free School District v. Board of Assessors of the County of Nassau, 54 A.D.2d 978, 389 N.Y.S.2d 27 (2d Dept., 1976), app. den., 41 N.Y.2d 805, 363 N.E.2d 1386, 395 N.Y.S.2d 1026 (1977)).

Life estates may also be created in personal property (Lowery v. Helvering, 70 F.2d 713 (2d Cir., 1934); In re Brandreth’s Estate, 169 N.Y. 437, 62 N.E. 563 (1902); In re Thompson’s Will, n.o.r., 43 N.Y.S.2d 392 (Surr.Ct., Westchester Co., 1943); 56 NY Jur2d, Estates, Powers, etc., §38; 31 CJS, Estates, § 138; 51 Am Jur2d, Life Tenants and Remaindermen, § 34). Presumably, then, a person could claim to have a life tenancy in a mobile home, but our research has disclosed only one judicial discussion (by a Federal District Court) of such ownership interest (Deakens v. Tackett, n.o.r., 2006 WL 771931 (S.D.W.Va., 2006)). Significantly, in that case, a bankruptcy appeal, the court looked to state law and found that the certificate of title, akin to that required under this State’s Vehicle and Traffic Law discussed above, proved ownership of the mobile home. One of our staff attorneys discussed this situation with an attorney at the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles who advised that its departmental procedures and certificate of title form do not allow for only a life interest in a mobile home. As such, at least as to mobile homes manufactured since July 1, 1994, the apparent transfer of complete title to a mobile home as evinced by the DMV certificate of title militates against the existence of a life estate absent some other document or conveyance.

As one court said:

But defendant transferred all right, title and interest in all of its real and personal property ... pursuant to a “General Bill of Sale and Assignment”. In our view, this was a sufficiently detailed written instrument to convey defendant’s interest in its real property to Cold Springs (see, Real Property Law § 240(2); General Obligations Law §§ 5-101, 5-703 . . .). The document is duly subscribed and contains operative words evincing a present intent to convey an interest in real property (see, General Obligations Law § 5-703; see also, Real Property Law § 240(2); §§ 243, 258, 290(3)). Furthermore, the document identifies the parties, sufficiently describes the subject matter [citation omitted] and sets forth the consideration; thus, it states all of the essential terms of a complete agreement (see, General Obligations Law §5-703) (Cayea v. Lake Placid Granite Co., Inc., 245 A.D.2d 659, 660, 665 N.Y.S.2d 127, 128 (3d Dept., 1997)).

Consequently, it is at least theoretically possible that the purported owner of a life tenancy in a mobile home could present proof sufficient to establish such an interest. Converting that theory into fact would seem difficult as to mobile homes manufactured since July 1, 1994.

November 14, 2006

{1}  In that opinion, we concluded: “A life estate may be created or reserved by an unrecorded instrument in writing, but that instrument must satisfy all of the requisites of a conveyance.”