Florida homestead law a ‘debtor’s haven’? Not for Beverly Hills dentist

Facing a $2.1 million court judgment in California, longtime Los Angeles resident Michael Motamed suddenly got a yen to move to Florida, plunking down $1.5 million for an oceanfront condominium in Palm Beach.

But attorneys representing a former UCLA pre-med student who suffered horrific injuries in 2012 when Motamed’s Mercedes plowed into her said there was nothing mysterious about the retired Beverly Hills dentist’s sudden interest in Florida real estate.

Knowing the Florida Constitution protects homesteads from being seized to pay off court judgments, Motamed bought the Palm Beach condo to assure Regina Ramos would never collect the money a California jury in 2015 found she needed to rebuild her body and her life, said attorney Michael Pike, who represents Ramos.

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“I believe he bought the property because he felt the judgment was unfair and he wanted to shelter his money from Regina Ramos,” Pike said.

This week, Palm Beach County Judge Edward Garrison agreed with Pike. In a brief order, he yanked Motamed’s ability to shield his property, agreeing to “eviscerate” the dentist’s all-important homestead exemption.

“Michael Motamed never had a bona fide intent to permanently reside in Palm Beach County, and, in fact, never used or occupied the Palm Beach condo as his primary residence,” Garrison wrote.

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Motamed died last year at age 84, but his son, who took over his dental practice, continued the fight. Jupiter attorney Michael Knecht, who represented Amir Motamed and his father’s estate during a daylong trial, didn’t return a phone call for comment.

Neither did Motamed’s California attorney, Eric Dubin, who made national news in 2008 when he won a $15 million judgment against television star Robert Blake in connection with the 2001 shooting death of the actor’s wife.

It’s not unusual for people, particularly the rich, to buy property here and declare it as their primary residence as a ruse to keep creditors at bay, said Pat Poston, director of exemption services for the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office. But, he said, it is unusual for it to spawn a lawsuit.

“I’ve never been involved in one,” said Poston, who has worked for either the appraiser’s office or the tax collector for more than 25 years. “I agree with the judge’s ruling. I didn’t think Mr. Motamed was entitled to an exemption and we would have removed it.”

In the last 10 years, the office has recovered roughly $10 million from people who falsely claim their residences as their homesteads to get $50,000 shaved off their property values, which in turn reduces their taxes. In some cases, it’s an honest mistake — people get divorced or move here from another state and don’t understand they aren’t entitled to it.

But some are trying to game the system, Poston said. He said he regularly answers questions from people who want to know if a homestead exemption would protect their homes from being seized.

In Motamed’s case, the evidence was clear that he didn’t live — or intend to live — in the Palm Beach condo on South Ocean Boulevard, said attorney Talina Bidwell, who also represents Ramos.

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The same furniture, draperies, lamps, rugs and throw pillows that were in the condo when Motamed bought it in January 2015 are there today, Pike said. Even the photos on the walls are unchanged.

Motamed did the minimum required to establish a homestead in Florida, he said. He got a Florida driver license and a voter registration card a month after he purchased the condo. For good measure, he also got a Palm Beach County library card, Pike said.

But 11 days after he got a Florida driver license, he renewed his California license. He also never registered his Bentley in Florida. The $80,000 car remained registered in California, Pike said.

Further, records show, he continued working out at a Los Angeles gym, sometimes two times a day. He missed only 57 days in 2015 and only 25 days in the first half of 2016, the lawyer said.

Even Motamed was hard-pressed to explain why he spent so much time in California when he claimed to live in Palm Beach. During a deposition, Pike asked him if he spent “almost 99.9 percent” of his time in California. “That is my understanding,” Motamed said.

California, like most other states, doesn’t have laws that protect homesteads, Bidwell said. So, to protect his Los Angeles home, Motamed took out a mortgage on it, destroying any value it had, records show. He also sold a rental property he owned, and used the $1.6 million he made from it to purchase the Palm Beach condo, Bidwell said.

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“Florida is known as a debtor’s haven,” she said. “A lot of judgment debtors come here and sink all their assets into a mansion. The problem here was he never moved here.”

Unless Amir Motamed appeals Garrison’s ruling, Bidwell and Pike said they will file papers to force the condo to be sold. Ramos, now 30, and still struggling with her injuries will be able to seize the cash from that sale, Pike said.

Poston said his office is deciding whether to go after Motamed’s estate for the $800 to $900 in taxes he should have paid if he had not received the homestead exemption on the Palm Beach condo for a year.

Had Motamed not died, Poston said he could have asked State Attorney Dave Aronberg to prosecute him on a misdemeanor charge of filing a false application for a homestead exemption. However, such cases are difficult because prosecutors have to prove that a person had no intention of living in the home.

Nevertheless, Pike said, this case sends a crucial message.

“It’s very important for the public to know that courts will not tolerate it and for the injured to know there is a way to get your damages even when someone tries to hide them from you.”

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