Pay Property Taxes First and Dispute Bill Later

Times Staff Writer

At property tax time, the region’s treasurer-tax collectors gear up for the annual onslaught of calls from property owners complaining they didn’t get their tax bills or insisting they really did mail that check in on time. Honest.

“The No. 1 problem we get at the tax collector’s office is the ‘I didn’t get the bill’ problem,” says Dave Collins, assistant treasurer and tax collector for Los Angeles County. “Even if you don’t get a tax bill, it’s not an excuse to not pay it.”

Section 2610.5 of the revenue and taxation code states: “Failure to receive a tax bill shall not relieve the lien of taxes nor shall it prevent the imposition of penalties imposed by this code.” Even if the bill arrives with the prior owner’s name on it; even if the bill seems too high; even if it never arrives.


Collins recommends that owners pay disputed tax bills first and pursue discrepancies later. He also says that anyone who does not receive a bill by Nov. 5 should call the treasurer-tax collector’s office for a substitute.

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Jeff Gordon certainly wishes he had done that. Thinking he had paid the current and back taxes on a property he had sold, then won back in a foreclosure proceeding, the Los Angeles homeowner was angry after receiving a delinquent notice earlier this year that charged him penalties on a bill he said he never received.

“That tax bill never came to my house, so how could I pay it?” he asked. “I didn’t get any consideration from the county when I went through my problem.”

Collins said that the law is explicitly and simply stated in the tax code. And, despite a yearly reminder about property taxes on radio, television and in escrow-office mailers that explain owners’ obligations, the tax collector’s office is swamped annually with calls, usually from new homeowners complaining that their tax bills never arrived.

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When properties change hands--as about 100,000 of Los Angeles County’s 2.3 million properties do every year--some of the name and address changes don’t get posted on the tax collector’s roll before the bills are typed and mailed. Therefore, tax bills sometimes are forwarded to the previous owners, who often throw them out.

“Property taxes accrue to the property, not the owners,” Collins said. “Whoever owns the property has the obligation to pay, whether your name is on the bill or not.” It is the responsibility of the owners, he said, to make sure they get the bill.

Collins also cautioned homeowners about problems that arise with impound accounts, an arrangement in which money that goes toward taxes is included in the owner’s monthly mortgage payments. The bank pays the taxes for the owners, who receive a yearly “information bill” that looks like a tax bill but contains no payment stub.

Often, homeowners mistakenly send a payment in with their information bills, inadvertently paying twice. The tax collector sends refunds when that occurs.

Also, some owners with impound accounts are unaware that after their home loans are paid off, the bank no longer pays the property taxes; that obligation reverts to the property owner. In that case, the owner should get a “substitute bill” from the tax collector’s office or send in the payment with the “information bill.”

In other cases, home loans are sold to banks that do not service impound accounts, and property owners, uninformed of that change, are surprised when delinquent tax bills arrive in the mail with penalties tacked on. Experts recommend that when home loans are sold, property owners make sure their impound accounts are intact. If they are not, owners should ask the tax collector’s office for substitute bills.

Some property owners will receive “supplemental” tax bills during the year, reflecting the difference between the previously assessed value of one’s property and the current assessed value. This bill is an additional, not a substitute, tax bill. Both must be paid by their deadlines.

Owners with impound accounts should either pay their supplemental tax bills or, if they have impound accounts, contact their lenders and arrange for payment. They should not simply assume that the bank will pay. Banks don’t receive those bills.

Property owners who receive tax bills that seem too high should pay, then petition the assessor’s office for a correction, said Gil Parisi, special assistant to the Los Angeles County assessor. Petitions are available at any of the county assessor’s offices or online. They should not be mailed with tax bills.

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In the past, property owners seeking appeal of the reassessed value of their properties had to file the forms with the assessor’s office between Jan. 1 and March 15. Beginning in January 2001, those appeals can be filed year-round.

If property owners lose the first appeal, they may file a second through the assessment appeal board between July 2 and Sept. 15. Rick Auerbach, the Los Angeles County assessor, said his office is seeking to extend that appeal period as well.

“The goal of our office is to produce a fair and accurate assessment roll and provide the best public service possible,” Auerbach said. “We don’t want anyone to pay penalties.”

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How the Property Tax System Works:


Provides copies of all building permits issued.

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Provides copies of all deeds and other recorded documents.

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Assesses all real estate and personal property (businesses, boats and airplanes) located throughout the county.

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Receives the assessments from the assessor and applies the appropriate tax rate to determine the actual amount of property tax owed.

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Mails out property tax bills, collects and deposits the money in the county treasury.

Source: Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office