Articles Posted in Ecommerce

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It’s no secret that California has a high state income tax rate. In fact, it has been the undisputed income tax champion for the past decade or so (the middle brackets are more compressed, and some states even have higher middle bracket rates). 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, Texas and Washington State. Often those businesses have to operate in California, since that’s where the market for the product or service is, or there is valuable cachet in having a California location such as Silicon Valley or Orange County. And often for small businesses and startups, the owner has to be present 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. Moreover, as e-commerce continues to grow in market share, a physical presence in California becomes less and less necessary for many businesses, and relocation may result in tax savings for sales to non-California customers. Some companies may have started in California, but as they’ve prospered, they can operate from any state. In cases like these, some strategic use of out-of-state entities can result in large enough tax savings to make the major step of relocation worthwhile. But details matter.

The Rules Of California Residency Taxation

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 individual residency and business domicile. Changing residency is not a panacea for every tax problem. It only works in certain situations. And to determine where it works requires understanding the basic rules of how California taxes individual residents, nonresidents and businesses.

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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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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 tax enforcement agencies either. Because of that, “remote workers” need to be careful and understand the tax rules for nonresidents working for California firms.

California Tax Rules For Remote Workers

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 income with a source in California. And for tax purposes, the source of income from services is the location where the services are performed. This is true even if you are a nonresident, even if the contract with the employer is made out-of-state, and even if the wages are paid outside of California.

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