AUSTIN -- Tens of thousands of spouses of totally disabled veterans in Texas will qualify for significant property tax relief under a law taking effect Sunday.
Texas law already exempts veterans who are declared 100 percent disabled because of combat injuries or other service-related causes from paying property taxes on their home. As of Jan. 1, that homestead exemption will also apply to a spouse after the veteran dies.
The change will help some of those spouses, many living on fixed incomes, to keep their homes, said John Burkhardt of the Austin chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart veterans group.
"Some of our veterans have owned their homes for many years, and when they die, their spouse can get hit with huge bills," Burkhardt said.
The measure is one of a handful of laws taking effect in 2012. The homestead exemption for disabled veterans' spouses required an amendment to the state constitution, which voters approved in November.
It won't come cheap. According to a Senate analysis, the exemption is estimated to cost state and local governments about $25 million in property taxes by 2016.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, one of the authors of the law, called that an insignificant budget impact compared with the sacrifices made by the veterans and their families.
"When they came back from war 100 percent disabled, that's a very special class of soldiers," Patrick said.
"We're not talking about people living in million-dollar houses. For the most part, we're talking about people trying to get by on military benefits."
Texas has about 300,000 disabled veterans, and nearly 25,000 of them are designated as 100 percent service-related disabled, according to the Texas Veterans Commission. About 16,600 of those are between ages 55 and 75.
The homestead exemption applies to the veterans' primary residence and expires if the surviving spouse remarries. The exemption moves with the surviving spouse to a new home if the home would be an equal or lesser dollar value compared with the old one.
The new restrictions on homeowner associations require them to give homeowners three to 18 months to pay late dues or fines.
Homeowners will also be allowed to contact their association directly about their late payments, even if the association has retained an attorney or collection agent.
The law also allows homeowners to prevent their association from using foreclosure if the ban is approved by two-thirds of its members.
A provision requiring associations to get a court order before foreclosing took effect Sept. 1.
"This is the first time we got protection that had real teeth," said Harvella Jones, president of the Richmond-based National Homeowners Advocate Group.