Vietnam veteran fights for Lindenhurst Village tax exemption
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A Lindenhurst man is fighting to make retroactive a veteran's exemption on his property taxes, even though village officials say he does not qualify.
Douglas Drefus, 64, was living with his father, Raymond Drefus Sr., when the latter -- a World War II Army veteran -- died of melanoma in 2007.
Douglas Drefus, who served with the Army's 101st Airborne for three years in Vietnam, was left the house, he said, but the probate process lasted another two years. In 2009, he paid a bill for back taxes on the property.
Drefus discovered that his father, who bought the house in 1949, had received a veteran's exemption. Under state law, veterans who served during wartime can receive a 15 percent reduction in assessed value.
Drefus, a semiretired auto mechanic, applied for and received the exemption for himself, saving more than $200 annually. But his request for the exemption for the years the house was in probate -- worth several hundred dollars -- was denied.
"They can backdate the taxes, but they can't backdate the exemption?" Drefus asked.
In a 2011 letter to Drefus, village clerk-treasurer Shawn Cullinane wrote that the "benefits of the exemption cannot be back dated as you did not own anything before the effective ownership date. You are entitled to the veteran's exemption, not the house."
"We would love to help him, but we're precluded by the state from doing that," Cullinane said recently. "We are giving him whatever he's entitled to, just as we did for his father."
Asked why the backdated tax bill was sent to Drefus even though he did not own the house during that period, Cullinane said Drefus "volunteered to pay the back taxes," adding that if he hadn't, the house may have gone into foreclosure.
Cullinane said Drefus told him he did not take ownership sooner because there was a dispute with his brothers. But Drefus denied making such a statement.
Drefus' brother Raymond Drefus Jr., 66, of the Marshall Islands, said the siblings, along with a third brother, did not argue over the house. He said settling the estate "was time-consuming and complicated, and we didn't want to rush through it."
Regardless, he said, "my brother was still a veteran throughout all that time, so he should get the exemption."
Raymond Drefus, a 34-year Army and Army Reserve veteran who served in Vietnam and during the Iraq War, said that even though the amount of the disputed exemption seems minimal, "for my brother, who doesn't have a lot, it is a lot of money."
Drefus has appealed to Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst). But Steve Liss, counsel to Sweeney, said that under the law, Drefus is not entitled to the exemption during the years he did not own the house.
"There was a legal method of achieving his goals," Liss said, referring to a life estate agreement, which is set up while the owner is still alive and often allows for seamless transfer of the property and the avoidance of probate.
Drefus said that at this point, it's not even about the money. "It's the principle," he said.
He said he understands the law's rigidity is designed to weed out the unqualified who may take advantage of the exemption, but he vowed to keep fighting.
"The law is great, you get the ones who don't deserve it," he said. "But the problem is, you also trap me."
The tax law
Section 458-a of the Real Property Tax Law of the State of New York provides an alternative exemption from real property taxation for qualified residential real property owned by veterans of defined periods of war, veterans who received expeditionary medals, or certain members of their family, based on a percentage of assessed value. The alternative exemption is applicable to general municipal taxes, but not school taxes, special ad valorem levies or special assessments.
A qualified residential parcel receives an exemption equal to 15 percent of its assessed value. Where the veteran can document service in a combat theater or combat zone, the property receives an additional exemption equal to 10 percent of its assessed value. Where a veteran has received a service-connected disability rating from the Veterans' Administration or the Department of Defense, there is an additional exemption which is equal to one-half of the disability rating, multiplied by the assessed value of the property.
Source: New York State Department of Taxation & Finance, Office of Real Property Tax Services