Articles Posted in California Residency Tax

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The Issue

Nobody needs reminding that California is a high income tax state. Most people know there can be tax benefits from changing residency or maintaining nonresidency status where California is involved. With a top bracket rate of 13.3%, California residency at the time of a large capital gains event (such as a startup sale or IPO, for instance), can result in millions of dollars of state income taxes, while across the border in Nevada, the tax would be zero. But details matter. The amount of tax savings, if any, achievable through strategic residency tax planning depends on various moving parts: sources of income, types of compensation, connections people want to or must maintain with California, community property rules (for married couples), the cost and inconvenience of acquiring nonresident status, to name a few. The refrain found everywhere on the internet that huge tax savings beckon every resident to flee the state is simplistic at best. Accordingly, considerable forethought, usually with CPA assistance, is advisable before committing to a residency plan. This article discusses why.

How California Taxes Residents vs. Nonresidents

First the basics.

California residents are subject to California state income tax on all their taxable income regardless of the source. It doesn’t matter if the income comes from the moon, if it is taxable, then California tax system claims jurisdiction. It’s possible a California resident to qualify for a credit for taxes paid in another state for out-of-state income, and some income types are exempt on their face in California (such as social security retirement benefits), but the default rule remains: a resident’s worldwide income is subject to California income tax. Period.

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working vacation residency
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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Manes Law graphic tax burden by stateA recent study comparing the states by income tax, sales tax, property tax, average overall tax burden and average effective income tax rates, including dollar for dollar and by percentage, produced expected results about California’s high tax burden, but also some surprising insights. It wasn’t unexpected that California failed to appear in the lowest 10 states for any tax category. What was surprising for some, however, is that California didn’t appear in the top 10 states for any category except average overall tax burden, and sales taxes. In fact, this confirmed what residency tax planners should know as a matter of course: changing residency from California doesn’t equal tax nirvana for every taxpayer. The details matter. How much tax savings a residency change can produce, if any, or if indeed leaving California will result in a higher overall tax burden (to a taxpayer’s consternation), depends on numerous factors, including the destination state.

The study, carried out by HireAHelper, an online booking agency geared to people looking for moving services, used Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. It conforms to similar studies over the last decade or so.

The Results

The study showed that California’s average total effective state and local income tax burden  (income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes) is – no surprise –  in the top ten, in a dollar for dollar comparison. Only New York, Illinois, Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Minnesota exceeded California in this category. However, as a percentage, using median income, California is squarely in the middle of the states at 8.9%, tied with South Carolina, of all places. California is also not in the top ten states for effective income taxes, using a method of applying the average effective rate to the median income and expressed in dollars (that is, what median income taxpayers actually pay in dollars versus what they would pay based on marginal rates – but query whether that’s a helpful metric). As might be expected, California appears in the top 10 states with the highest sales tax rates.

Needless to say, the traditional zero income tax states of Nevada, Texas, Washington State, Wyoming, Florida, South Dakota and Alaska came out smelling like a rose in overall tax burden, and also in almost every other category.

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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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casablanca california residency graphic

The Issue: Even Casablanca Isn’t Far Enough Away to Avoid A California Residency Audit

The global economy has enabled growing numbers of California residents to find employment overseas, often in Pacific Rim or European countries.  Many of these jobs are in financial services or high-tech industries and can be very lucrative. The temptation is to pack up and leave without thinking about the California tax consequences.  But that can be a costly mistake. California has special rules for changing residency to another country. If they aren’t scrupulously followed, expatriates can find themselves facing a large California tax bill along with the cheerful balloons at their welcome home party.

Changing Residency To Another State vs. Another Country

Changing legal residency from California to another state has fairly straightforward rules, if you’re willing to seriously pull up stakes.  If you keep a vacation home, or a business, or work remotely, then it gets complicated. But the concept is direct enough: to change your legal residency from California to another state you have to (a) intend to change your residency (that is, intend to leave for other than temporary or transitory purposes) and (b) physically move to the new state (you can’t just think about moving).

How the Franchise Tax Board, California’s taxing authority, determines intent and what constitutes “moving” is another matter. California residency law has few bright-line rules, and its “facts and circumstances” test can sometimes seem like a Kafka novel in its excruciating focus on seemingly casual details used to punish the unwary.  That said, if you follow the regulations and case law, and avoid common mistakes, you can have some degree of certainty about establishing yourself as a nonresident in another state, just by leaving and not looking back.    Continue reading →

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Promissory note sourcing

The Issue

Nonresident individuals and out-of-state companies often make loans to California-based borrowers. It’s not unusual for those promissory notes to be secured with California real estate. The scenarios take many forms. A person may inherit the note from a parent, or they may feel obliged to make a loan to a child purchasing their first home. Or the note may be on the books of an out-of-state company as a result of the sale of assets or a subsidiary to a California buyer. Clients in these circumstances often ask me whether the interest from the note is California-source income. The short answer is, generally no. The long answer is, it depends.

Why It Matters

It obviously makes a financial difference if loan interest is California-source income. Nonresidents are taxed by California on income sourced to this state. If the interest on such loans are California-source income, the nonresident must file a nonresident return and pay California income taxes. An analogous situation applies to out-of-state companies that hold such notes. If the interest is revenue sourced to California, the lender is “doing business in California” and owes California taxes on that revenue. But even if the amount of tax is minor, there may be a larger downside. For nonresidents, a California income tax reporting requirement means that the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax enforcement agency, will know everything about the taxpayer’s global income. That’s because the nonresident must attach a federal return, Form 1040, to the nonresident state return, Form 540NR. It’s not the end of the world, and it by no means guarantees a residency audit, but if the person’s global income is particularly high, and if there are indications of other significant contacts with California, then it could increase the chances of the FTB initiating a residency audit, something that promises unique unpleasantries for nonresidents. See, California Residency Audits: Three Year-End Tasks to Reduce the Risk for Nonresidents.

For business entities, having California-source income raises similar complications. An out-of-state company doing business in California has to register as a foreign entity and file all appropriate entity tax returns, regardless of how de minimis its California taxable income is. And, if the entity is a pass-through, the reportable California-source income may also require the principals to file nonresident returns. A double whammy. Continue reading →

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graphic for 4600 noticeOur office has experienced a significant increase in the number of taxpayers reporting they have received 4600 Notices “Request for Tax Return” sent by the Franchise Tax Board (California’s tax enforcement agency). The likely explanation is discussed below.

What’s Happening?

This July, our office saw a spike of 100% from the prior year in contacts from taxpayers seeking guidance after receiving a 4600 Notice from the FTB. There is a particular increase in nonresidents who have businesses out of state with no direct contacts with California. The notice relates to whether they are “doing business in California” as a result of sales to California customers. The upsurge could simply be more potential clients are choosing to contact our firm, but the more likely explanation is an actual increase in the volume of 4600 Notices sent, especially those relating to doing business in California.

What Is a 4600 Notice?

The FTB sends a 4600 Notice when it has reason to believe the recipient, usually a nonresident, was required to file a California tax return in a prior year, but didn’t. The notice is sent automatically when the FTB receives information to indicate that the non-reporting taxpayer earned or was distributed California-source income or may reside in California. The notice requires recipients to either prepare and file a California tax return or explain why they aren’t required to. If the FTB accepts the explanation, the matter ends there. If the FTB doesn’t, then a full audit follows.    Continue reading →

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Cal tax trap image

Sunny Taxxy California

Most of the world knows the Palm Springs area for its picturesque golf courses, celebrity homes and halcyon weather. Among the taxing authorities in Sacramento, however, the words “Palm Springs” conjure up less carefree images. Spurred by the state’s appetite for tax revenues, the Franchise Tax Board, California’s main tax enforcement agency, has tapped into a new revenue source: taxing seasonal visitors to popular vacation spots in California, where residents often have second home. Palm Springs is one such area. But so is Santa Barbara, Sonoma County, San Diego.

Seasonal Visitors As Tax Targets

This is how it works. California taxes residents based on their worldwide income, from whatever source, no matter how far-flung. In contrast, California taxes nonresidents only on their income derived from California sources. For instance, these might include a limited partnership operating in California or rent from an investment property. Since California has the highest income tax rate in the country, visitors who suddenly find themselves defined as “residents” may face a large and unexpected tax liability.

Obviously, the FTB  would like to claim everybody who sets foot on California soil as a resident and subject their income to California tax. That’s their job, after all. As many seasonal visitors have discovered, the FTB’s policies sometimes seem not to fall too far short of that mark.

A special division of the FTB has for years systematically targeted seasonal “part-time” residents for audit (I use the term “part-time” loosely, since we are talking about nonresidents who spend part of the year here, not part-time legal residents per se; but the term has stuck). Though other vacation spots experience their share of audits, historically the most common casualties are affluent “snowbirds” who own vacation homes in the Palm Springs area as an escape from the winter blasts of the Midwest or northern states. In fact, many of the major cases in residency taxation are eerily similar: they usually involve Midwesterners who own winter vacation homes in Palm Springs and environs. If the FTB finds significant taxable income coupled with meaningful contacts with California (such as a vacation home, business interests or long visits to the state), it can lead to the launch of a full-blown residency audit.

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Ca residency internet symbol

The Issue

With 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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