Articles Posted in Ecommerce

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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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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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temp work in CAWhat’s Happening?

The 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 enforcement 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 usually taxable by California regardless of residency status. That’s inescapable because the work is performed in California in the case of W-2 salary. In the case of 1099 income, if the work is in California, that usually means the customer is in the state (the FTB uses “where the benefit is received” for sourcing independent contractor revenue). Accordingly, if all the income the worker receives during that tax year comes from the project, it won’t usually make any difference what his residency status is.

However, if the taxpayer has other sources of income, it can make a big difference. California only taxes nonresidents on income sourced to California. But it imposes an income tax on residents with respect to all their income, from whatever source.  And the top rate is 13.3%.

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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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