Articles Posted in Doing Business in Calilfornia

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graphic for NFT article
Hot as a Recalled MacBook Battery

The non-fungible token market has become as hot as a recalled MacBook lithium battery (if that’s possible). You’ve probably seen the figures: digital artist Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million; a LeBron James non-fungible dunk clip lasting ten seconds went for $200,000; Jack Dorsey’s first tweet was auctioned for $2.9 million.zero-like-tweet-1

Various funds and exchanges now tally NFT transactions in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The lucky beneficiaries of the market have surely taken into consideration federal taxes. But if they are nonresidents of California, they may not be thinking of how California might treat NFTs for tax purposes. Specifically, depending on the location of the buyer and the status of the seller, the income from NFT sales might be sourced to California, making it subject to California income tax. Oddly, in that case, due to favorable federal capital gains treatment of NFTs, it’s even possible that the California income tax might be higher than the federal tax.

What is an NFT?

People are used to non-fungible assets in the analog world: Action Comics #1 (the first Superman comic book), a stretch of beachfront real estate, the Mona Lisa. You might be able to copy these assets one way or another, but only the original has value. A snapshot of the Mona Lisa or a video of a beach house isn’t worth much. Hence, the non-fungible designation.

In contrast, media on the internet has always been susceptible to unlimited reproduction (whether in violation of copyright or not) without much loss a value. A copy of a YouTube video of Milli Vanilli has pretty much the same value, or lack thereof, as the original. Then came blockchain. The same public-ledger technology that authenticates bitcoin transactions can be used to validate the original digital file of a work of online art, or the NBA’s official slam-dunk competition clips, or Jack’s first, fateful tweet. Blockchain transformed digital media that could be infinitely reproduced with no significant diminishment of value, into a class of assets, like comic books or baseball cards, that could never be copied without a total loss of value. You can still copy an online version of an NFT as a screenshot or other facsimile. But the result is equivalent to a photo of the Mona Lisa.

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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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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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promissory-note-lock2-copy

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.

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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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Doing Business in CaliforniaThe Franchise Tax Board, California’s taxing authority, has consistently taken an aggressive stance in claiming out-of-state businesses have income tax reporting requirements for “doing business in California.”  The FTB reached a limit in Swart Enterprises, Inc. v. Franchise Tax Board, Cal. Ct. App. (5th App. Dist.), 7 Cal. App. 5th 497 (2017).  In that case, a California appeals court ruled against the FTB’s claim that a foreign corporation with a passive .02% ownership in a California LLC was doing business in California.  As a result, the FTB was forced to modify its ruling on doing business in California by members of multi-member limited liability companies.

FTB Walks Back Prior Ruling

Specifically, the FTB has modified California FTB Legal Ruling No. 2014-01, 07/22/2014, which sets forth the FTB’s analysis on a number of “doing business” scenarios involving members of multiple-member LLCs that are classified as partnerships for tax purposes.  The ruling had asserted that the distinction between “manager-managed” and “member-managed” LLCs, made no difference in determining whether a member of the LLC was doing business in California.  The reasoning in Swart Enterprises made that assertion untenable.  As a result, the FTB has removed the language and replaced it with the innocuous phrase: “a narrow exception may apply in limited circumstances.”  Continue reading →

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