Articles Tagged with taxing nonresidents

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graphic for NFT article

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 at $2.9 million.

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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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CA residency and coronavirus

The Issue

Can COVID-19 orders make you a resident? Since the COVID-19 emergency struck, tens of thousands of nonresidents have found themselves marooned in California due to coronavirus travel restrictions. The typical situation involves a seasonal visitor forced to remain in a vacation home longer than intended. But it runs the gamut, involving temporary visits to California prolonged by stay-at-home orders, or by the increased risk of contracting the coronavirus posed by traveling back home, particularly where the only feasible method of transportation is via commercial airline. Some nonresidents have even been formally quarantined due to a family member becoming infected. Unable to return home as planned, many nonresidents find they have already spent the majority of the year in state.

In those scenarios, it’s reasonable for out-of-state visitors to ask (as many contacting my office have) whether they will be deemed California residents due to the extra time spent in coronavirus lockdown. And the corollary question to that is, will the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax enforcement agency, find out about the extended sojourn, and if it does, how will that affect the likelihood of being audited?

The Short Answer

The short answer is, remaining in California longer than planned for reasons not within your control is, in most cases, a temporary or transitory purpose. Therefore, unexpected delays in leaving California, beyond the power of the nonresident to mitigate, don’t usually confer residency status. The coronavirus pandemic is just such as case.

However, as usual with residency rules, it’s never that simple. Context may determine whether getting locked down in California jeopardizes nonresidency status. The good news is, the year is only half over, and that means even the worst-case scenarios can be managed in the remaining months of 2020. For nonresidents still stranded in California by the coronavirus emergency, what they do next may make all the difference.

And now the long answer.

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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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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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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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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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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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boomerang image for manes residency articleIt’s no trick to leave California to avoid its high income taxes – if that’s all you want to do. But in fact, most people who change their legal residency from California have more in mind.  They also want to retain contacts with the state. That might mean a vacation home, it might be managing a California business remotely, it might involve meeting potential clients or investors in California for an out-of-state entity. The last situation, which is fairly common, requires planning, since changing residency may not be enough to avoid California income taxes if your work for your out-of-state business brings you back to California.

When Changing Residency Isn’t Enough

A typical situation involves a business owner who changes legal residency and moves his business out of state. Well and good. Unless a taxpayer changes legal residency, everything else is moot from a tax perspective, and if the company operates out of California, distributions to its out-of-state owner are also subject to California tax. But the fact is California is an economic powerhouse. Few businesses, especially those in high-tech and financial services (which are increasingly the same thing), can succeed without participating in the California market. And that often means meeting with and cultivating potential clients or investors in Los Angeles or Silicon Valley, where the capital, expertise and demand resides.

If that’s the case, it’s important to understand the differences between personal residency as opposed to doing business in California versus working while present in California. These are three separate tax issues, which require different approaches to manage. Continue reading →

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