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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:In September 2003, Thomas Norris filed a voluntary bankruptcy petition under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Under the code, a debtor may claim a homestead exemption as allowed by state law. Norris claimed his 68-foot yacht as exempt property under the Texas homestead exemption. The boat, which Norris valued at $399,000 in his bankruptcy schedules, has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a galley, and an upper and lower salon. Although his petition indicated that his street address was 13909 Nacogdoches Road in San Antonio, Norris testified at a January 2004 bankruptcy court hearing that the address is a business postal center where the Norris family receives its mail. Norris further stated that he took up permanent residence on the boat after the Norrises sold their previous home in Lake McQueeny, Texas, in 2000, and that the boat is his only home. Norris’ attorney stated at a hearing that Norris lived on that boat while it was in a Corpus Christi dry dock, and that the boat received water, phone service and electricity through connections to a dock. Norris also testified that since purchasing the boat in 1997 he had cruised extensively around the Gulf Coast. At the time the bankruptcy petition was filed in September 2003, the boat was docked in Port Aransas. Norris testified at the January 2004 hearing that he had moved the boat to a marina in Corpus Christi, where he had a month-to-month lease. Although the boat is described in the record as dry-docked, there is no indication that Norris ever permanently affixed the boat to real estate or intended to do so. The bankruptcy court held that the Texas homestead exemption, even broadly construed, does not include boats. The federal district court agreed, concluding that the boat was a movable chattel “by virtue of its self-powered mobility” and not entitled to homestead protection. Norris appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which certified this question to the Texas Supreme Court: “Does a motorized waterborne vessel, used as a primary residence and otherwise fulfilling all of the requirements of a homestead except attachment to land, qualify for the homestead exemption under Article 16, ��50 and 51 of the Texas Constitution?” HOLDING:The Texas Supreme Court answered the certified question, “No.” Article XVI, �50 of the Texas Constitution shields homesteads from forced sale, providing generally that “[t]he homestead of a family, or of a single adult person, shall be, and is hereby protected from forced sale, for the payment of all debts . . . .” But neither the Texas Constitution nor the Texas Property Code defines homestead with specificity, the Texas Supreme Court stated. Specifically, the court found, Art. XVI, �51 and the Texas Property Code state when describing the scope of the homestead protection the acreage limitation covered by a homestead exemption “with the improvements thereon,” “with any improvements on the land” or “with any improvements thereon.” The court noted case law that found residents of some mobile homes that sat on land owned by parties other than the residents still qualified for the exemption. Thus, the court stated that the proper test for whether a residence attains homestead status is whether the attachment to land is sufficient to make the personal property a permanent part of the realty. The court found that a boat is sufficiently distinct from a mobile home or house trailer, particularly given the Constitution’s unequivocal requirement that protected improvements be on the land. Norris’ boat, unlike a dwelling that is permanently affixed to land, retains its independent, mobile character even when attached to dock-based amenities because it has self-contained utility and plumbing systems and also boasts its own propulsion. Though Norris took steps to tether the boat to realty, the court stated that those steps did not sufficiently alter the boat’s mobile character or prevent Norris from cruising the Gulf Coast. Thus, the court denied the homestead exemption to Norris’ boat. To qualify as a homestead, the court held that a residence must rest on the land and have a requisite degree of physical permanency, immobility and attachment to fixed realty. A dock-based umbilical cord providing water, electricity, and phone service may help make a boat habitable, but the attachment to land is too slight to warrant homestead protection, the court stated. OPINION:Willett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, joined by Jefferson, C.J., and Hecht, Green and Johnson, J. DISSENT:O’Neill, J., delivered a dissenting opinion, joined by Wainwright, Brister and Medina, J.J. “The ‘fundamental idea connected with a homestead is . . . that of a place of residence for the family, . . . a secure asylum of which the family cannot be deprived by creditors’. . . . If a structure is owned and occupied by a household and attached to land, it is protected as a homestead. . . . Although Norris’ home is his boat, and it is attached to land by power, water, and sewer lines, the Court nevertheless concludes that his home is not protected and subject to execution. Because the Court’s decision today violates the purpose of homestead protection as we have long interpreted it, I respectfully dissent.”

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