Articles Posted in California Residency Audit

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The Issue

​Nonresidents who own vacation homes, business interests, financial accounts, or have other significant contacts in California can receive a notice from the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax enforcement agency, demanding they file a tax return or explain why they aren’t required to. The official notice number is 4600 (you can find the designation on the lower left bottom of the Notice). Hence the name, “4600 Notice.” It’s also called a “Request for Tax Return,” since the verbiage has appeared in bold on the Notice since about 2017. If a nonresident owns a second home or uses some other address in California, the Notice is often mailed there (which can be a problem if it’s an unoccupied vacation home without mail forwarding, since the deadline for responding may be missed before the recipient even knows the Notice has arrived). But it can also be sent to their out-of-state address. Nonresidents who receive the Notice are often perplexed and concerned about why they received the Notice, and how they are supposed to respond. This article clarifies what the Notice is about, the risk it poses, and the options nonresidents have for responding.

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graphic to Manes Law residency tax blog

The Case

A new case from California’s Office of Tax Appeals brings some clarity to how strictly California dates a change of residency for income tax purposes when a resident moves out of state shortly before a liquidity event. The case, Appeal of J. Bracamonte, OTA, Case No. 18010932 (May 2021), emphasized the importance of how much time a resident spends in California after the purported move. Bracamonte also sheds light on the “interim home” problem, which occurs when a resident moves into an out-of-state rental pending purchase of a permanent home in their new home state, while retaining ownership of their former primary residence in California. Finally, the ruling – probably inadvertently – seems to provide guidance on the date for determining when a taxpayer’s residency status is relevant to a liquidity event (the date of the closing, the date of the income receipt, or the date when an enforceable agreement is in effect). The case can be found here.

Background: How Does California Date a Change of Residency?

Changing residency from California is binary: it happens on a specific date. How do we know that? The Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax enforcement agency, requires that a resident leaving California identify the specific date of the residency change on Schedule CA of the Form 540NR “Part-Year” return, which exiting taxpayers, with few exceptions, have to file for the year they move. The exact question on the schedule is: “I became a California nonresident (enter new state of residence and date (mm/dd/yyyy) of move).” By the way, nonresidents moving to California also have to complete Schedule CA, conversely disclosing the date they become residents.

It bears mentioning that changing residency is a legal concept, and most taxpayers don’t know the rules or how to apply them to a calendar. This means there is no easy answer to when a residency change occurs. In fact, it can be totally counterintuitive. When the FTB asks an ambiguous question, it’s usually intentional. The FTB hopes the taxpayer will make a mistake that might be advantageous to the tax authority. Serendipitously, the taxpayers in Bracamonte did just that, originally putting a move-date on their 540NR that made no sense factually, something they were grilled about during trial, presumably eroding their credibility in the eyes of the court.

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Working Remotely Rules

The Issue

With the rise of ecommerce, advanced telecommunications, and the new prevalence of remote work due to the COVID emergency, more and more people are choosing the option of living in one state while working for an employer in another, without ever setting foot at the employer’s place of business. The possibilities for reducing state income taxes through this scenario haven’t been lost on founders, hi-tech C-suite, and other key employees in California. By moving across state borders and working for a California business (or even running it) through Zoom and other telecommunications, 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 tax enforcement agencies either. Because of that, remote workers need to be careful and understand the tax rules for nonresidents working for California firms, at least for highly compensated former residents.

California Tax Rules For Remote Employees

Generally if you work in California, whether you’re a resident or not, you have to pay income taxes on the wages you earn for those services. That’s due to the “source rule”: California taxes all taxable income with a source in California regardless of the taxpayer’s residency. In other words, nonresidents pay California income taxes on taxable California-source income. With respect to employees, the source of income from services compensated by W-2 wages is the location where the services are performed, not the location of employer. This is true even if you are a nonresident, even if the employment agreement with the employer is made out-of-state, and even if the wages are paid to you outside of California.

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CA residency photo

The Issue

E-commerce, advanced telecommunications, and the new prevalence of remote work 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 high-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 benefits of the other spouse having nonresident status are 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, there is no such thing as “marital” residency. Residency status always belongs to an individual, whether married or not. Of course, a spouse’s residency status can have a substantial influence on the other spouse in a residency audit. It’s typical for married couples to live together, and the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax enforcement agency, has a bias for the typical when it comes to residency determinations. But even leaving that aside, married couple tend to spend time together, and if a substantial amount of that time is spent in California, where one spouse resides, the other spouse can begin to look very much like a resident.

In the past, this situation was so uncommon it hardly made a blip on the FTB’s radar scope. It might involve 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 in Saudi Arabia; more recent ones prominently feature professional athletes and corporate managers assigned to overseas offices. That’s changed. Separate-residency marriages are now more about a lifestyle choice involving a global economy and the scenario of remote work that can allow some people to live and work anywhere.

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The Six-Month Mythos

You 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 in the state during any calendar year. 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. Just the opposite. It’s critical. But the real rule is more complex and has to be understood in the context of how California determines residency. It isn’t by counting days. In fact, relying on the six-month figure as a somehow magical way to avoid California residency can get a taxpayer 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 during any calendar year, 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 tax 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 during the year, 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 owning a vacation home, having a local bank account for local personal expenses, and belonging to a “social club” (read “a country club”).

These qualifiers call for some parsing. Continue reading →

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The Cases

Two recent court decisions have reemphasized how difficult it can be for a nonresident with a California spouse to avoid California income tax. Difficult, but not impossible.

Why The Cases Are Important

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Bitcoin image for manes law articleWhere is Bitcoin?

This may sound like a question on a Philosophy 101 midterm exam. But in fact, it’s a real-world tax issue, with potential huge tax consequences for nonresident traders, investors, and users of cryptocurrency, at least to the extent they have financial connections with California, through an exchange or via cryptolending. This is all the more true with the recent IRS announcement that it is scrutinizing thousands of cryptocurrency investors to determine if they have properly reported taxable income relating to crypto. Where the IRS finds taxes due from cryptocurrency transactions, the Franchise Tax Board, California’s main tax enforcement agency, is sure to follow.

Why It Matters

California taxes residents on all their taxable income, from whatever source. In contrast, California taxes nonresident only on income sourced to California. Some income is easy to source. Rents from California real estate? It’s California source: California taxes that income even if the owner lives on the moon. Wages from working in California or selling a product in state? Same result, regardless of the taxpayer’s nonresident status.

Those examples are clear. But what happens if the source involves the trade or investment of an intangible asset? Then things get complicated, if not murky. What are the tax consequences of selling founders stock you own in a California startup for a $10 million gain and you now live full-time in Texas? If the proceeds aren’t sourced to California, you owe zero state taxes. If the proceeds are California-source, you might owe over $1.3 million. The same considerations arise with vesting stock options, sales of software, goodwill, trademarks, royalties. And the answer under California sourcing rules when it comes to intangibles is always: “it depends.”

Cryptocurrency falls into the intangible category. And because crypto is a relatively new class of assets, the rules that apply to California taxation remain out of focus.

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The Remote Economy: A Two-Way Street

The internet economy, ecommerce and constant connectivity has allowed increasing numbers of nonresidents to provide remote 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 and key employees 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 have the increasing ability to operate a company 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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Lincoln on California resideny

Is Bigfoot a California Resident?

Manes Law discussed its top five internet myths about California tax residency rules in a previous article. Here are five more. Again, they’re in no particular order, but the comments should provide some indication about how important they are and why.

Myth #1: Leave California, Sell Your Business And You’re Home Free

Many of our clients are founders exiting startups, either through an IPO or purchase by another company. Or they are long-term business owners in traditional industries who plan to sell their California-based company after retiring out of state. The widespread internet meme insists these scenarios always result in zero California income tax on the gain, even though the sale is of a California business.

The basic concept is correct: if a nonresident sells his interest in a California business (that is, corporate shares, limited liability company memberships, partnership interests), the traditional rule is California can’t tax the gain. But not so fast. Numerous factors play a role in determining whether a business sale by a nonresident will escape California’s tax system.

The first is, the transaction must in fact be the sale of a business interest, not the sale of business assets. For good tax reasons, purchasers often prefer to buy assets, not business interests, if the value in the company is in the assets, not the brand. And in some industries, an asset sale is the standard for a business purchase. But take note: if the assets are situated in California, an asset sale by a nonresident results in California-source income, taxable by California regardless of the residency status of the seller. Generally, only interest sales are eligible for tax-free treatment by California when the owner is a nonresident.

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loch-ness-monster-0121-copyThe Issue

While not quite as prevalent as Bigfoot videos, myths about California’s residency tax rules abound on the internet. Of course, believing in Bigfoot won’t increase your chances of a residency audit, or cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars if the audit goes against you. In contrast, misinformation about California’s rules for determining residency can have just that result. This article discusses the top five California residency tax fictions out firm often encounters at websites offering residency advice. They’re in no particular order, but my comments should provide some indication about how misguided they are and why.

The Basics

First, the basics. You can’t understand what’s misleading about many of the residency myths without first grasping the legal framework for California residency for tax purposes. The key concept is this: No one thing makes you a resident of California, and no one thing makes you a nonresident. Rather, California follows a “facts and circumstances” test. This means the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax enforcement agency, weighs all the contacts a taxpayer has with California and every other jurisdiction. To determine residency status, the FTB scrutinizes the contacts under legal precedent, regulations, chief counsel rulings, and audit practices. Since this is what California tax authorities do, effective residency planning must do the same. Therefore, whenever someone says that this in-state contact results in California residency, or that out-of-state contact means you’re safely a nonresident, a fundamental misconception is at work.

Why It Matters

The reason residency status matters for tax purposes is also often misconstrued. California taxes residents on all their taxable income, from whatever source. That’s obvious to almost everyone who would broach the topic. But online discussions of California residency often miss the equally important corollary: California taxes nonresidents on all their taxable California-source income. Ignoring this second element of California’s tax law can lead to residency plans that go horribly astray.

For a more detailed discussion of how California determines residency status, see this article on residency guidelines.

And now to the myths.  Continue reading →

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