Adult Knowledge II: Nothing's sure but death and county taxes: Column
I’m starting to realize that this series will be kind of what an adult life skills class in high school would have been to me, but really, who had time to fit a useful life skills class into their schedule when they were trying to pad their high school GPA with a weighted AP economics class which taught them all about making cute graphs but nothing about how to fill out an IRS 1040? Not speaking from personal experience or anything.
Anyways, the 2021 JCO real estate and personal property taxes just came out, and they are producing the same reactions taxes always produce: “Why is my bill so high?,” “Who do these taxes really go to?” and “Am I supposed to be paying this?” The answers to the first two are: “Please see your itemized breakdown” and “For public services that we all enjoy like police, ambulances, libraries, senior services, education and just about every other nice thing in the county.”
The answer to the third? Well let me explain how real estate and personal property tax bills come to be, in the simplest way possible (and I mean really simple — like this is how “Sesame Street” would break this down, only with cute Muppets and a song), and keeping in mind this is general knowledge. For the nitty-gritty financial nuances and for personal-scenario-specific assessment questions, please see the lovely staffs at the JCO Assessor’s Office and sheriff’s office, who are experts in the field while the rest of us are amateur hour. But to make it easier to understand in my mind, I like to think of our county-collected taxes as working on three different planes of existence, and those planes tell you which year’s taxes you’re paying, how that number came to be and why a certain name is on the ticket.
Plane 1: The calendar. Taxes are paid on a calendar year, Jan. 1-Dec. 31, so the bill you just got is for the year 2021. The bills for taxes are sent in July of each calendar year, but honestly, that’s up to the state to decide. They could just as easily decide that the bills should come out in March of the calendar year, but since they know we’re all still paying Christmas bills and haven’t received our federal tax refunds in March, they set the billing date in July (it's actually most likely because the state works on the July-June fiscal calendar, but this explanation sounds nicer). So even though you don’t get the bill until July, that amount on the bill is for January-December.
Some of the calendar confusion comes from the fact that we get two tax deadlines: Pay your first half of taxes in September, and then pay your second half in March of the following year. But again, those are state-imposed deadlines. They could just as easily make the first half due in June, and the second half due in December, but please don’t do that, State of WV, unless you want a lot of kids to get “Paid in full — real estate taxes” receipts in their stockings. But that leads into the next question: So how do they know how much to charge me for my yearly taxes?
Enter Plane 2: The assessment. Your tax assessment in 2021 is based on the value of your property (real and personal) in 2020. That’s why when you get your assessment form in June or July of the current year, you have to write down what you own at that moment, which the Assessor’s Office will then compare with your prior assessments. Using a statutory formula plus any taxes that are county-specific (like levies), they figure out the value of your property and assess you accordingly. Then the sheriff’s office collects your payment, where the earlier you pay, the more you save.
That’s why those assessment forms that come out in June or July of each year are really important, so don’t toss them in with the rest of your mail and forget them: You want to make sure that your 2022 bill is accurate to what you own in 2021. Getting accurate forms back to the assessor in a timely manner matters, because if they don’t know what you own or don’t own, they have no choice but to continue to assess you for it, so be proactive about getting those forms back. Which leads to our last plane, and the one people wonder about the most.
Plane 3: The owner. So here’s a scenario: You paid your 2020 taxes in full in July, as soon as the bill came out, because you’re fancy like that. Then in November 2020, you sold your house. Fast-forward to July 2021, and you open a tax bill in the mail for that house, with your name on it. “But how can this be?” you ask, “I don’t own this house anymore. How hath this mistake befallen me?” (read that last part in your worst Old English accent).
There’s a very simple reason: Because until the assessor’s office gets notice of your sale, you are still listed as the owner, and the address on that assessment is used to generate the bill. Once the assessor gets your updated assessment form, on which you’ll point out that you’ve sold this property, they’ll do the due diligence to update that property’s assessment with the new owner and the new address. But that’s not an immediate process: You don’t sell on a Friday and they update your assessment on a Monday. Some people will run in after purchasing a property and let the assessor’s office know they’ve purchased the property, and the assessor will change the mailing address on the ticket so it’ll go to the new address, but those people are over-achievers, and we can’t hang with them.
But what do you have to do if you sold your property in 2020 and still got the bill in 2021? Number one: Don’t pay it. Unless you are the nicest person who ever existed, just because you got the bill, and just because it has your name on it, and unless your sale of the property dictated otherwise, you aren’t responsible for paying the taxes on property you didn’t own in 2021. Courteously forward the bill on to your buyers, because those taxes should be the responsibility of the buyer.
(Although seriously, if you’re thinking of doing something nice for someone that they’ll actually have a real use for, paying another person’s real estate or personal property tax bill is near-automatic entry into sainthood. Anyone can pay anyone else’s tax bill — go online or stop in at the sheriff’s office. It’s the gift you can give anyone, and it's perfect for the people you just don’t know what to buy for, because who doesn’t love not paying their taxes? Just throwing out Christmas gift ideas, everyone.)
New buyers (aka, my friends who are purchasing homes for the first time), let this be your reminder: If you bought property in 2020, or any time between Jan. 1 and June-ish of 2021, go pay your taxes. Not receiving a ticket isn’t an excuse, and someone else’s name being on the ticket isn’t an excuse either. If you purchased the property in 2020, or in the six months before tickets came out in 2021, then that’s your tax bill to pay. And there are two things all humans hate seeing in the paper with a passion: Their names on the “delinquent taxes” list for property they don’t own anymore, and their newly-purchased property listed in a “Selling on the Courthouse Steps” notice.
So do yourself, and your sellers, a favor, and if you haven’t received a tax bill by the middle of August for real estate you now own, and you know the taxes haven’t been paid, get online or stop into the sheriff’s office and get your bill. Oh, and when you get to the office window, please act cool and don’t joke, “So since my name isn’t on it, I don’t have to pay it, right?” That joke was maybe mildly funny the first time someone said it back in 1776 when King George’s redcoats were coming around to collect taxes; it’s lost its shine since then, and we don’t pay our county employees enough to listen to bad comedy at work.
But in all honesty, if your name ends up on the delinquent tax list, take it for what it is: A gentle reminder to pay your dang taxes ASAP. It’s really an easy thing to forget: You get the bill in July, you see it’s not due till September, March at the latest, and you toss it in your “To pay” drawer, and you don’t remember it until your great aunt or your third cousin once removed calls you and cackles, “Saw your name in the paper!” And while being an adult doesn’t exempt you totally from public shaming, the opportunities become less so. So don’t give that cousin you don’t really like (or the tax department) the opportunity to shame you: Pay your taxes, peeps!