Once an investor has owned a tax lien certificate of purchase for at least three years since it was first offered for sale by the given county, the investor may seek to foreclose the right of the property owner to redeem the tax lien. Arizona’s statutes (A.R.S. Section 42-18201, et seq.) govern the foreclosure process.
Specifically, Arizona Revised Statute Section 42-18201 requires that at least thirty days before filing an action to foreclose the right to redeem, the tax lien holder must send a notice of intent to file a foreclosure to the property owner. Section 42-18201 specifies exactly how that is to be done.
The recent Arizona Court of Appeals case of Roberts v. Robert, 158 P.3d 899 (App. 2007), has added to the due diligence necessary to successfully foreclose the right of a property owner to redeem a tax lien. In Roberts, the Roberts purchased two tax liens for property located in Mohave County, Arizona. The Roberts later sued the owner of record, Phyllis V. Johnson, the Mohave County Treasurer, various fictitious parties, and the "unknown heirs of any of" them "if they be deceased" to foreclose their right to redeem the tax liens.
After attempting personal service on Johnson, the Roberts discovered that Johnson had died. A son of Johnson, was served on Johnson’s behalf and subsequently entered into an arrangement with the Roberts whereby they would obtain a default judgment without any subsequent assessment of fees or costs against Johnson or the son. The Roberts later obtained a default judgment barring Johnson or any person claiming title "under" her from asserting any right, title, or interest in an tot he property subject to the tax lien.
A year later, Tim Roberts appeared, claimed to be the son of and heir of Johnson, and argued that as an heir, he had a right to redeem the tax liens. He then moved for a new trial and asked the trial court to set aside the default judgment, arguing that the default judgment was void because he had not been personally served or served by publication.
The issue presented to the Court of Appeals was whether Johnson’s heir had a right to redeem a tax lien. The Court of Appeals ruled that because Tim Roberts was Johnson’s rightful heir, he a right to redeem. The Court also ruled that only those parties who are joined in a foreclosure action may have their rights to redeem foreclosed. Thus, ruled the Court, the Roberts need to join Tim Roberts as a defendant in their foreclosure action and obtain a judgment against him to foreclose his right to redeem.
The Court also set the standard for what level of due diligence and due process will be required in a tax lien foreclosure action in Arizona. Depending on the circumstances, the Court ruled that a tax lien holder may need to examine public records, or may need to ask relatives, friends, or the neighbors of the deceased property owner about the existence of heirs. In the end, the Court stated that whether service by publication is constitutionally sufficient will turn on the facts of the particular case, and it would not attempt to set forth a rule that will fit each circumstance.
This case clearly sets a due diligence and due process standard, but leaves it up to the circumstances of each case to dictate what efforts will justify service by publication. Indeed, the Court rejected the Roberts’ contention that they did serve Tim Roberts as an "unknown heir." The Court stated that the record contained no evidence of what steps, if any, the Roberts took to identify and locate Johnson’s heirs before attempting service by publication.
The message is clear – if the property owner has died, some efforts must be made to locate the heirs of the deceased property owner before service by publication will be deemed appropriate under the circumstances. This decision clearly will place a heightened burden on tax lien investors and will undoubtedly increase the cost of successfully foreclosing the right to redeem. It will be interesting to see if future court decisions spell out in greater detail what level of due diligence and due process will be required. Until then, investors beware – do your due diligence.