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Appraiser will examine Connie Mack's tax-break 'conundrum.' But congressman's probably in the clear.

The property appraiser overseeing Senate candidate Connie Mack’s homestead exemption says he’ll double-check to make sure the congressman is legally getting the tax break.

But Mack is probably in the clear – even though his wife, California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack has a homestead exemption in her district -- said Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson.

“I think they’ll be ok. That’s my gut feeling,” Wilkinson said. “But I now have an obligation to check this out.”

The issue cropped up shortly after Mack criticized Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for taking advantage of another tax break, an agricultural exemption, on a Brevard property that has cows on it.

Like Nelson’s agricultural exemption, Mack’s homestead exemption case isn’t easy to figure.

Under Florida law, a family can only have one homestead exemption, which shields the taxable-value increase of a home. The reason: A homestead is a full-time home, and the state constitution seeks to encourage stable residents.

That means a family can only have a single permanent home -- not two.

But what happens if two people with separate homesteads then marry and keep their separate homes? The law isn’t clear.

So it’s up to the property appraiser to decide initially. Then it can go to the courts.

“It is a conundrum,” Wilkinson said. “This can happen. It happened here in Lee County and my predecessor before I took office in 1980 was sued over it. And he lost.”

The whole issue comes down to two words: “family unit.”

If Mack can demonstrate that he has a “separate family unit” from his current wife, he can likely keep his homestead exemption on his Fort Myers condominium.

To show the separateness, Wilkinson said, Mack and his wife should have separate bank accounts, filed their federal income taxes separately and that neither is on the other’s deed for the homesteaded property.

Mack’s spokesman, David James, said that’s the case for the congressman and congresswoman.

“They file separate returns, do not have joint accounts, and Connie's name is not on Mary's home in California and Mary's is not on Connie's home in Ft. Myers,” James said.

Still, there's enough gray area here to raise questions in the minds of his opponents. Later today, Republican George LeMieux will hold a press conference and is likely to bring the issue up along with a Miami Herald report detailing Connie's financial and legal troubles at times.

Not every property appraiser, though, would easily give Mack a break.

In Broward County, which Mack represented in the Legislature, appraiser Lori Nance Parrish believes that a family can only have one homestead with almost no exceptions.

Parrish said that if the husband and wife are not separated, they’re part of an “intact marriage” and therefore they’re a “family unit.”

The state’s Department of Revenue, which promulgates rules, wouldn’t take a side.

“These cases hinge on the specific facts of the case and thus there would need to be a factual and legal determination concerning whether a married individual can sustain the exemption in Florida in a given situation,” said spokeswoman Renee Watters.

Wilkinson, known as the father of the state’s Save Our Homes homestead tax cap, said he’ll need to check everything out first. Without knowing of Sen. Nelson agricultural-exemption case, Wilkinson compared the exemptions for homes and farms.

“It’s like many things. It’s not one thing. But in the end, it comes down to: See the cows, give the exemption,” Wilkinson said. “In the case of a husband and wife, if they live separately and show they have separate finances, what am I supposed to do? Make it tougher for them to get married or stay married?”