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shutterstock_business_beach-1-300x199The digital economy has allowed increasing numbers of nonresidents to work remotely for California firms without becoming California residents, and even without paying California income taxes (see my article Nonresidents Working Remotely for California Businesses ).  At the same time, more and more nonresidents find themselves being offered lucrative temporary employment in California.  This is particularly true for software developers or other information technology and e-commerce specialists who are in high demand by California’s thriving internet firms to complete a particular project.  But it’s also true for medical professionals, management strategists, corporate trainers, even part-time teachers in a specialty field.

What all these professionals have in common is project work.  The employment in California is temporary in that it involves completing a particular project or term of service.  It isn’t permanent.  It isn’t open-ended.  Of course, temporary is a relative term.  Some projects may only last a few months; others may require more than a year to complete.  The issue confronting nonresidents working temporarily in California is whether they will be taxed only on their California-source income or become a resident in the eyes of California’s tax authority, the Franchise Tax Board.  To control that, nonresidents working in California should have a plan.

Why It Matters?

At first blush, it might not seem to matter whether a nonresident working on a temporary basis in California is deemed a resident or not.  The wages or 1099 (independent contractor) income received while working in California is taxable by California regardless of residency status.  That’s inescapable because the work is performed in California.  If all the income the worker receives during that tax year comes from the project, it doesn’t make any difference what his residency status is.

However, if the taxpayer has other sources of income, it makes a big difference.  The FTB only taxes nonresidents on income sourced to California.  But it taxes residents on all their income, from whatever source.  And the top rate is 13.3% (in 2017).

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It’s that time of year again.  The time when the Franchise Tax Board sends out its 4600 Notices, “Request for Tax Return,” the bane of snowbirds and other part-time residents of California, especially those with vacation homes.  And a potential trap for the unwary.

What is a 4600 Notice?

A 4600 Notice is sent by the FTB because it believes the recipient, usually a nonresident, was required to file a California tax return, but didn’t.  The notice usually goes out a month or two after the April 15 tax filing deadline, but it can show up any time after that, even years later.  There is no statute of limitations.  As a practical matter, however, the FTB generally sends the notice within a short period after the tax filing deadline or not at all.  That’s because, as explained below, the notice is usually triggered by information provided by third parties (such as banks, mortgage lenders, employers) in the same tax year at issue.

The notice requires you to file a return, or explain why you are exempt.  It’s usually directed at nonresidents, who for various reasons discussed below, have the misfortune of popping up on the FTB’s radar scope.

Why did you get a 4600 Notice?

When I say the FTB believes a nonresident was supposed to file a California tax return, I’m speaking metaphorically.  4600 Notices are mostly sent out through an automated system.  No thinking is involved.  The typical scenario goes like this.  You’re a nonresident who doesn’t file a California tax return because you don’t live in California and didn’t have any California source income.  But you do have a mortgage on your vacation home, or a small local bank account that bears interest, or you work remotely for a California firm which for convenience sake uses your local address for correspondence.  As a result, the bank, lender or employer sends a Form 1099 INT (bank interest) or Form 1098 (mortgage interest) or a Form W-2 (wage income) to Sacramento with your name and local address on it.   Come April 15th, FTB computers cross-reference these “information returns” with filed tax returns.  When nothing comes up, a 4600 Notice issues.

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One of the perennial questions my Canadian clients ask me is how they should take title to their US real estate, usually a vacation home.  My answer is, it depends on a number of considerations, but the right choice probably involves a revocable trust specially drafted to hold US real estate.  But in any case, some thought has to go into the decision.  Thousands of dollars may be at stake if the wrong method of title is used.  The choice shouldn’t be made casually while signing escrow papers, which regrettably often happens.

The best way for Canadians, and foreign nationals in general, to hold US real estate depends on their plans for the property, its value, the owner’s age and net worth, whether the property has appreciated since it was purchased, the expectation of rental income, and what issues loom large for the owner (avoiding probate, escaping the US estate tax, selling the property with a minimum of capital gain, limiting personal liability).  Let me go over the basics.

  1. The Probate Issue.  A probate in Canada can’t transfer real property located in the US to the decedent’s heirs.  Neither a California court nor the local county recorder will recognize foreign court orders when it comes to US real estate.  So, if you are a Canadian and you own a vacation home in California in your individual name (or both the names of you and your spouse), when one of you dies you will have to probate the real property (the exception is property held in joint tenancy, discussed below).  Another probate will be required when the surviving spouse dies if the spouse hasn’t sold the property.  Probate is the process whereby a court oversees and orders the transfer of assets from a decedent to the decedent’s heirs.  Like any court process it tends to be time consuming, public, and involves significant attorney’s fees.  Most foreign nationals are wise to try to avoid it.
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In “Nonresidents Working Remotely for California Businesses” I discussed how the internet economy, ecommerce and constant connectivity has allowed increasing numbers of nonresidents to provide services to California businesses without setting foot here.  As long as those nonresidents meticulously follow the rules, they can work remotely free from California income taxes.  Or at least they can minimize the amount they do have to pay.

But the remote economy is a two-way street.  The technology that lets a Colorado resident work for a Los Angeles firm from his offices in Boulder, also allows him to run his Colorado business while vacationing at a Southern California beach house.  More and more nonresident business owners are doing just that.  And that can lead to California tax problems.

This isn’t a theoretical issue.  The idea of taking a vacation of any significant length without doing any work is obsolescent.  Research shows over 50% of employees work while on vacation, and as to business owners, the figure is around 85%.  Moreover, since business owners can increasingly operate their business from anywhere, including a California vacation home, the lines between an extended vacation and running a business remotely are becoming blurred.  Whether this is a good or bad development, it can result in unexpected and unpleasant tax consequences.

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How to Take Paul Newman’s “The Sting” Out of Your Taxes

paul_newman0final.jpgWith the rise of the internet, cloud and smart phone economy, more and more people have the option of living in one state while working in another – remotely. The possibilities for reducing state income taxes through this scenario haven’t been lost on savvy hi-tech employees and business owners in California. By simply moving across state borders and working for a California business (or even running it) through the internet, they become nonresidents, potentially free of California’s high income tax rates, while still being able to participate in California’s thriving economy.

Of course this situation isn’t lost on California’s taxing authorities either. Because of that “remote workers” need to be careful and understand the tax rules for nonresidents working for California firms.

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California residents who plan to move to another (by definition lower income tax) state, either to retire or for business purposes, often face the problem of how to handle their business interests situated in California. Mostly these interests are LLCs, the preferred entity for most modern business operations. The taxpayer often wants to hold onto the LLC interests and continue to get the income stream until some later date after the move. The question that arises is, what are the California income tax consequences of selling a California LLC interest after the taxpayer changes residency to another state?

I’m assuming the business owner has already weighed the risk of retaining his California business interests while disentangling himself from California by reducing his contacts here and establishing residency elsewhere. Obviously any continued contacts with California are red flags for California’s taxing authority, the Franchise Tax Board, which determines residency in part through a “contacts test,” evaluating which state the taxpayer has the most contacts with. Business interests are just the type of substantial contact that can weigh heavily in determining residency, and can trigger a costly residency audit. In addition, unless the circumstances are very unusual, the income allocated from the LLC to the taxpayer will be California source even after the taxpayer leaves the state. That means the former Californian will have to file nonresident tax returns with Sacramento (the Form 540NR), and the FTB will know about his global income. If the income is high, it again sends up a red flag that could lead to a residency audit.

But assuming that this decision has already been made, and the taxpayer decided to keep his California business interests despite the risks of an audit, the next issue is planning for the eventual sale of the interest as an out-of-state resident.

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Helped along by the depressed US housing market in the past few years, the Palm Springs, California, area has become a hot spot for Canadians to purchase vacation homes or rental property. Often the same property is used for both purposes: vacations for snow-weary owners, and rentals when they go back to Canada. With the year about to end, it’s a good time to go over the basic tax rules for Canadians who own or rent real property in California.

Assuming the Canadian owner doesn’t have a green card or hold other residency status, the tax implications of owning real estate in the US will depend on how the property is used and how often it’s used.

If the property is solely used as a vacation home – and never rented out during the year – there should be no US tax implications until the house is transferred, either by sale, retitling into a trust or business entity, or at the owner’s death. In our wireless connected world, Canadians who mix vacation with work while at the property need to be careful about running afoul of US federal and California state income tax rules, especially when it comes to the very aggressive California tax authorities and their rules about California source income. But that’s another topic.

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So the California Revocable Trust seems like a very practical ownership form for the Canadian (Great Britain or even the American from a state other than Cal) who wishes to see their heirs spared (and I do mean spared) the California court system, inlcluding the time and cost (probate). Is it true, however, that the contribution of appreciated property can lead to a payment of tax requirement?

Is There a Tax Required in Either Canada or the US Upon Contributing the US House to the California Revocable Trust?

Remember, there’s one of two times the trust will first own the property: either (a) at the inception of the house purchase (for example, Canadians Harriet and Thomas decide to purchase a La Qunita California home, they enter a 30 day escrow period- prior to the closing date, Harriet and Thomas simply inform their escrow agents that they plan to own the house as trustees of their California Revocable Trust- escrow complies, and as of Day 1 the Harriet and Thomas Trust owns the home); or (b) after the home has been owned for a while by Thomas and Harriet, the house is transferred to the trust-. Is there a tax in Canada (or the US) if the trust is deemed owner from Day 1? No, no tax in either country. But what about if Harriet and Thomas have owned the house for years, and then want to transfer it to their California Revocable Trust, does that cause a tax obligation in either Canada or the US? In the US, a transfer of a house owned by H & W to the H&W Revocable Family Trust is not a taxable transaction, so there is no US or California tax. But on their Canadian tax return, Harriet and Thomas have a different conclusion. When Harriet and Thomas transfer their La Quinta house they’ve owned for a few years to their new Cal. Revocable Trust, there very well may be a taxable event in Canada. The tax is based on the appreciation (if any) in the value of the house from when Harriet and Thomas originally bought it until today, the day of transfer to the trust. The appreciation is all speculative, of course, it’s not like there’s been a recent sale to prove there’s been an appreciation in the property. But presumably by reaching out to a local realtor, by checking in with their neighbor (or head of your homeowner’s association), or even by reviewing the recent state property tax bill, they can have a good idea whether the property has appreciated. If it has, they will likely pay a deemed disposition tax on their Canadian tax return, but no tax (or return) will be required in the US upon the transfer to the trust. But, see below for an exception to that rule…..

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More on When We Use the Canadian Irrevocable Trust to Purchase US Property…

So we pick up where we left off last week: super-wealthy Canadians who own more than $5.34M in worldwide assets, and who loathe the idea of paying a US estate tax, should consider (1st and foremost) putting the US house into a Canadian Irrevocable Trust. You can do this with relative ease if the trust owns the house from the inception. But be careful for the scenario where the Canadians own the house individually at first, and then transfer (usually via a sale) the house to a Canadian Irrevocable Trust later. This is thought by some (but by no means all) practitioners to subject to the Canadians to the US gift tax (even though it’s a sale). I’ve yet to see any evidence of this, except for indirect case law from 50 plus years ago, so who knows. Nonetheless, Canadians transferring a US house to a Canadian Irrevocable Trust after owning it individually first (as opposed to when the trust buys the US property first) should remain mindful they are taking a risk, and that IRS may impose a gift tax on this transfer (sale). Call us at Sanger and Manes (760-320-7421) to discuss the Canadian Irrevocable Trust for California (and especially) Coachella Valley properties. This is a highly complex cross-border estate planning area, but Sanger & Manes can help.

For the vast majority of Canadians purchasing US real estate, the biggest concern is not the US estate tax, it’s the excessive cost and time required for a Canadian’s heirs to inherit their parents’ California real estate- i.e. the cost of probate (the California process whereby a California court orders the Canadian snowbird’s US house to be distributed to their designated beneficiary(ies)).

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Us, at Sanger & Manes, lecture on this topic regularly for Canadians in the Palm Springs area. We copy my lecture materials on the question of how the Canadian might consider owning the US home. First, let’s introduce a couple concepts worth considering before we choose the ownership form: the US estate tax and the dreaded California probate. Then we’ll get into evaluating various forms of home ownership.

What is the US Estate Tax? Can it Be Imposed on Canadians?

The US estate tax is a death tax imposed on Americans (on the value of all their assets worldwide) and possibly Canadians, but only if the Canadian owns US property at death (US property generally=US real estate or securities of US corporations). If so, the tax imposed is generally 30-40% of the value of the US property owned at death.