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2982476-300x225Let’s go over the basics of California residency taxation.  They can be brutal.

How Residents and Nonresidents Are Taxed

California residents are subject to California state income tax on all income regardless where earned.  It doesn’t matter what or where the source.  If a California resident derives income from investments in Saudi Arabia or from pensions that accrued while working in Ohio, California will tax that income.  The resident may get a credit for payment of taxes on income earned in other states or other countries (if a tax treaty permits), but the default rule is, the income is subject to California income tax. With a rate that is currently the highest in the nation (the distinction tends to go back and forth with New York), California residency comes with a significant tax impact.

In contrast, nonresidents are only subject to California state income tax on their California-source income.  That may be zero or it may be significant.  California-source income takes many forms, from rents derived from California real estate to business operations to performing temporary work in-state.  To give a rather public example, when LeBron James, an Ohio resident, not a California resident, plays the Lakers at Staples Center, he pays California taxes on the income he made on game night, which in his case is no small amount.

So the stakes are high when determining whether a taxpayer is a California resident or not.

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shutterstock_341354720-sm-jpg-300x185-300x185One of the major concerns of Canadians holding US real estate or other assets is whether the property will be subject to the US estate tax when they die.  It’s no small matter.  The estate tax top rate is 40%, and unlike Americans, foreign nationals who own US assets generally only qualify for a paltry $60,000 estate tax exclusion amount, not the $5.5 million unified credit available to American citizens.  Theoretically, if no planning were done and a foreign national died with a US vacation home worth $1 million, his estate would owe about $322,000 in US estate taxes.

Just as important, while American citizens have the benefit of the unlimited marital deduction when they leave their estate to a spouse (which is the typical estate plan), noncitizen couples cannot make use of the marital deduction to reduce or eliminate US estate taxes (unless they establish a QDOT, discussed below).

Fortunately for most Canadians, however, the US-Canada Tax Convention and its protocols, come to the rescue, if they plan right.  Here’s how.

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9baf90353963d26daaa1c54235b10b38-cool-pumpkin-carving-carving-pumpkins-300x300California’s Franchise Tax Board (FTB) sends out 4600 Notices “Request for Tax Return” when it gets a tax “information return” with a California address on it, but the taxpayer doesn’t file a California return, either as a resident (a Form 540) or as a nonresident (a Form 540NR).  An “information return” are documents like a 1098, 1099, K-1 or W2.  There are other reasons, but this is a major one.

To give a common example, if a nonresident owns a vacation home in California with a mortgage, and he told the lender to send the Form 1098 mortgage interest form to his vacation home address, he has likely just earned a 4600 Notice.  That’s because the FTB will see a 1098 with a local address associated with a person who hasn’t filed a California tax return.

This is a common mistake.  It also happens with Form 1099-INT involving bank interest from a local bank account (often involving de minimis amounts), or payments from brokerage accounts or out-of-state pensions.  The lesson is, nonresidents should never use a California address (whether it’s a vacation home or a relative’s place) for any tax information document.

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wireless-internet-connection-500x500-300x237With more and more companies forgoing brick and mortar by operating their business through the internet, tax authorities find it increasingly difficult to determine which enterprises are subject to state income taxes and which aren’t.  Typically, California has taken an aggressive stance.  In 2011, it passed a new law that defined “doing business” in California beyond being physically present by having offices or operations.  Instead California sought to define what constituted an “economic nexus” to the state, using factors such as sales, payroll, and inventory. In 2013, comprehensive regulations went into effect casting a broad net over the activities of out-of-state corporations and pass-through entities (LLCs, partnerships, S corporations) as doing business in California.  Judicial decisions interpreting those rules are just starting to trickle in.  The picture that is emerging indicates that non-California internet businesses need to be wary or they may find themselves subject to California taxation.

Why Does It Matter Whether Your Company Is “Doing Business” in California Or Not?

First, why does it matter if California determines an internet company is “doing business” in California?  It may matter a great deal.  The determination that an out-of-state entity is doing business in California is one of the ways California can impose income taxes on that business, even if they have no physical presence in California (the other is based on the entity earning California-source income).  In some cases, there may be a tax liability even if the company made zero income from California sales.

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FAQ-300x169Sanger & Manes has decades of experience in advising clients on California residency law, handling residency audits, assisting businesses relocate out of California, and appealing residency determinations. Based on this experience, we have assembled this list of frequently asked questions and provided brief answers.

1.Q. How does California tax residents versus nonresidents?

A. California taxes residents on all their income, from any source, no matter where it is generated. In contrast, nonresidents are only taxed by California on “California-source” income; that is, income generated in California. If a nonresident has no California-source income, then the nonresident should owe no taxes to California.

2.Q. I am a nonresident who owns a California vacation home. If I spend more than 6 months in California, am I automatically a resident?

A. No. There is a lot of mythology on the internet about the “six-month presumption.” While it’s always better from a residency perspective to spend less time in California, spending more than 6 months in California does not make you a resident. In fact, no one thing will ever make you a resident. The test for legal residency is complex and involves many factors. You can spend more than 6 months in California without becoming a resident, but you should plan carefully to make sure an extended stay plus other contacts don’t result in an audit or unfavorable residency determination. See our article, “The Six-Month Presumption In California Residency Law: Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be“.

3.Q. I’ve heard that if I spend more than 9 months in California, I am definitely a California resident. Is that true?

A. California law applies a “nine-month presumption” to visitors. That is, if you spend more than 9 months in California in any tax year, you are presumed to be a resident. But the presumption is rebuttable. Other factors may apply that result in you not being a legal resident, despite the extended stay. Prudence, however, suggests you shouldn’t tempt fate with so long a stay.

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Wave-goodbye-300x300It’s no secret that California has a high state income tax rate.  In fact the Golden State competes with New York and Hawaii for the highest rate in the nation — and usually wins (as of 2017 California is in fact the winner).  Nonetheless, despite somewhat overblown media reports, most Californians aren’t in a position to tear their businesses up by the roots and transplant them to low or zero income tax havens like Nevada and Florida.  Often those businesses have to operate in California, since that’s where the market for the product or service is, and typically for small businesses, the owner has to be present here in-state for the enterprise to operate and grow.

But that’s not always the case, especially when a taxpayer owns numerous entities and some of the income derives from service contracts (usually for management work) among the entities or between the entities and the owner.  Further, as e-commerce continues to grow in market share, a physical presence in California becomes less and less necessary for many businesses.  In cases like this, some strategic use of out-of-state entities can result in large tax savings that might make the major step of relocation worthwhile.

The Rules of California Residency Taxation

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But before we can address the benefits and pitfalls of relocation, we need to first give an overview of California’s income tax system relating to residency. California taxes residents with respect to their “global” income.  This means that for a California resident, income from whatever source — whether in-state or out-of-state — is subject to California taxation.  There may be credits for payment to other states, and there may be other ways of mitigating the taxes due to California.  But leaving that aside, California residents generally must pay significant state income taxes on all the income they make, from whatever source.  Let’s call this Rule #1: taxation of all income based on the California residency of the taxpayer.

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Executors probating Canadian estates that include US real estate or other assets subject to the US estate tax system, need to know how the US-Canada Tax Treaty may work to their benefit.  Just as important, they have to understand how to timely “invoke” the treaty, so that the tax benefits they are entitled to accrue to the Canadian estate and aren’t lost.

What US Assets Are Subject To US Estate Tax?

Not all US assets owned by a Canadian or other foreign nationals are subject to the US estate tax system. Mainly, the value of their US vacation home or other real estate, and the value of their US securities (stock of US companies) are included in calculating any US estate tax. US securities count no matter where the Canadian holds the stocks. But there is an exception for the US securities held by a Canadian mutual fund. Unfortunately, there is no exception for securities held by a Registered Retirement Savings Plan of a Canadian. The value of US securities held by a RRSP count in determining the US estate tax obligation of a Canadian decedent.

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keep-calm-and-happy-6-months-257x300You don’t have to be a tax lawyer to know that the way to avoid becoming a resident of California is to spend less than six months here.  Right?  Well, not exactly.  The “six-month presumption,” as it’s called, which is mentioned in one form or another in almost every Google search result of California residency rules, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  That’s not to say the amount of time spent in California doesn’t play an important role in determining legal residency.  It does.  But the real rule is more complex.  In fact, relying on the six-month figure as somehow magical can get a nonresident in tax trouble.

What Is the Six-Month Presumption?

The six-month presumption is established by regulation.  You would think it says something simple like: if you spend no more than six months in California, you’re not a resident.  That’s the popular online version.  And frankly it’s the version many auditors for the Franchise Tax Board (California’s taxing authority) seem to have in mind.  But that’s not the legal rule.

Rather, the rule has various qualifiers: if a taxpayer spends an aggregate of six months or less in California, and is domiciled in another state, and has a permanent abode in the domicile state, and does nothing while in California other than what a tourist, visitor, or guest would do, then there is a rebuttable presumption of nonresidency.  What would a tourist, visitor or guest do?  According to the regulations, nothing much more than own a vacation home, have a local bank account for local personal expenses, and belong to a “social club” (read country club).

These qualifiers call for some parsing. Continue reading →

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zj4_-300x212E-commerce, advanced telecommunications, and the gig economy have combined to give many married couples more flexibility in their working and living arrangements than in the past.  One of these options, rare until recently, is for spouses to assert they live in different states for tax purposes.  An increasing number of marriages have the mobility to allow one spouse to reside in California, while the other elects to establish or maintain legal residency elsewhere.  This is especially true for higher income couples, where supporting two households is economically feasible, one spouse wants to enjoy the benefits of living in California (often with the couple’s children), and the tax advantages of the other spouse having nonresident status is significant.

That said, it is no simple matter to establish or maintain nonresidency status while married to a spouse who is a California resident.  There are traps for the unwary.

To Each His Own Residency

Many taxpayers are surprised to learn California even allows separate residency status for spouses.  But in fact it is specifically permitted under California law.  In the past, this situation was so uncommon it hardly raised a blip on the radar scope of the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax authority.  Typically it involved a scenario where a husband took a long-term job out of state or overseas (older cases are populated with merchant marines and oil-field workers; more recent ones feature professional athletes and corporate managers).  That’s changed.  Split-residency marriages are now more about a lifestyle choice involving where to live and do business in a global economy that can allow people to work from anywhere.

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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, actors, professional athletes, artists, 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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