Articles Posted in Multi-state sales tax

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Our practice has recently seen an increase in criminal investigations of automobile dealers across the state for sales tax collected but not remitted to the Department of Revenue. The reason for this is unclear. However, it is vital for auto dealers to educate themselves on sales tax laws and the difference between a sales tax audit and a sales tax investigation.

A sales tax audit is a traditional audit in which the Department searches through Taxpayer records for compliance. Any noncompliance will result in a monetary assessment. Typically, the Department of Revenue looks at Federal Returns, Sales Tax Returns, and DMV Records in formulating an assessment. Often relying on formulas that produce estimations of additional tax due, these assessments are often grossly exaggerated. In addition, the Department often fails to properly account for repossessed vehicles when Taxpayers erroneously reduce these losses from their taxable sales and report the net amount on their returns. These assessments can be challenged both during audit and after a “proposed assessment” has been issued. However, the window to challenge these assessments is small. It is advisable to seek counsel immediately upon contact of the Department of Revenue to ensure that you preserve your right to challenge any assessment.

Alternatively, auto dealers can be contacted by the Department of Revenue for an investigation. These are the cases that our firm has seen an increase of in recent months. It is important to ask upon first contact by the Department whether they are initiating an audit or an investigation. An investigation is criminal in nature. Yes, a Taxpayer can go to prison for sales tax. Whether it was maliciously stealing tax money or simply keeping poor records and making errors over a period of time, the Department will often approach the investigation in the same way. How bad of a crime is “Willful Intent to Defraud the State?” Like most legal questions, that depends. In these cases, it depends on how much money the Department believes has been taken from the state. The breakdown of severity is as follows:

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You have a business that sells goods to your customers in other states. Recently, you heard that you should have collected sales tax on certain transactions or that the money you collected as sales tax should have been remitted to that state. You suspect that if you contact the state directly about your issue, the state may decide to audit you or bring you to jail for not remitting the taxes you collected. What do you do? What can give you peace of mind?

In comes the Voluntary Disclosure Program. With the Voluntary Disclosure Program, you pay the state its tax and interest, have most or all penalties waived, and most importantly, you avoid going to jail. At the end of the day, the Voluntary Disclosure Program truly is the best solution to some of the worst tax problems. But what is the Voluntary Disclosure Program and how do you qualify?

The Voluntary Disclosure Program is the process of initiating contact with a state to come clean on potential tax liabilities. To qualify for the Voluntary Disclosure Program, you cannot have been contacted by the state. If you have been contacted by the state before you apply for the program, most states recognize this contact as disqualifying you from the Voluntary Disclosure Program. However, some states may nevertheless allow you to enter the Voluntary Disclosure Program. The moral here is that as soon as you discover a tax liability that you wish to disclose, you need to enter the Voluntary Disclosure Program immediately.

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Imagine having an online business.  One day, you decide to use Amazon’s Fulfillment By Amazon (“FBA”) services.  Unbeknownst to you, your inventory is stored by Amazon in several states.  One day, you get a letter from the Department of Revenue.  The letter says that because you have nexus with that state, you must collect sales tax on sales to customers of that state.  Your first thoughts are “what is nexus” and “why does that mean I have to collect sales tax, especially when my store is not in that state?”

Many states assert a business has nexus (that is, a connection) with that state merely by having inventory present in the state.  It is irrelevant there are no employees, independent contractors, or office locations in the state.  Rather, you, like many other online sellers, used Amazon’s FBA services.

Amazon’s FBA service stores your inventory across the country.  Consequently, these states declare you, and any other seller with inventory in the state through Amazon’s FBA service, have nexus.  Thus, you must collect sales tax on sales to customers located in the state.  This article discusses nexus and the application to remote sellers that only have inventory stored in these other states by Amazon.  The article goes on to explain the sales tax implications for sellers using Amazon FBA services.

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In the United States, tipping at restaurants is never really optional. While customers are the ones who write in a tip on their bills at their discretion, it is generally expected to leave 15-20%.  Occasionally when large parties visit a restaurant, a mandatory tip is imposed by the restaurant on the bill. This ensures that servers, who may dedicate a large portion of their shift to a particular party, do not leave empty handed.

But when a tip is mandatory, is it really a tip? Or is it actually part of the food price? This was the question addressed by the Idaho Supreme Court. While tips are generally not taxable, restaurant food is taxable. When a tip becomes requisite payment for restaurant food, it becomes no different in substance than the sales price on the menu. As a result, if mandatory tips are, in fact, part of the sales price, then they too are subject to tax. Yes, that means you have to pay tax on the tip.

While the consequence of paying tax on mandatory tips only adds a small amount to the total bill, the cumulative effect can be substantial on the restaurant. This was the experience of an Idaho restaurant, Chandlers’-Boise LLC, that was found liable for sales tax on the amounts it automatically added to customer checks. The restaurant, which added gratuity to parties of six or more, argued in Chandler’s-Boise, LLC v Idaho State Tax Comm’n. 398 P.3d 180 (Idaho 2017), that such tips were exempt under Idaho law.

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Over the past several decades nexus has been at the forefront of the state and local tax world.  Since the Quill ruling in 1992, states have aggressively created ways in which a company can have a sufficient connection to their state.  Once the connection, or “nexus,” is made, a state can require a company to charge collect and remit sales tax to it.  As the economy has changed more to an online model, states continue to play catchup to get their fair share of the taxes.

Perhaps the most popular issue on a national multi-state tax level is whether a company has nexus with a state if they use the Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services.  In short, if Amazon houses a company’s inventory in a distribution center, does that inventory create nexus – ie – an obligation for that company to collect and remit taxes to that particular state.  That question has been affirmatively answered in most jurisdictions and companies have been blindsided by huge tax obligations often spanning many years.

For those companies that have been living in fear of large tax assessments, a Multi-State Tax Amnesty was recently released by the Multi-State Tax Commission (MTC).  Effective August 17, 2017 through October 17, 2017, several states will allowed companies who used FBA programs to come forward and comply.  Under the program, if a company complies, the state will forgive back taxes, interest and penalties in exchange for several requirements on a go forward basis.   To date, the participating states are:

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Tennessee has issued a notice stating that tours fall under the definition of “amusement” and are subject to sales and use tax. While amusements typically appear as places of amusement, such as amusement parks, concerts, and other shows, Tennessee also includes tours under that definition.

The first category of tours includes tours by vehicle. Included in this category are trolley tours, river cruises, and bus tours. Pub crawl tours on group bicycles probably fall under this category as well. Meanwhile, the second category of tours that are included under the definition of “amusement” are ghost tours, plant tours, pub crawls, etc.

This clarification is important for a state with a substantial amount of tourism. As the country music capital of the world, Nashville attracts many visitors who participate in these tours. However, the Department acknowledged that it is important to remember that exemptions exists to this rule. For example, tours conducted by a nonprofit, government agency, or for a Tennessee historic property are exempt from tax.

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As it turns out, Colorado really was just the beginning. As of January 1, 2018, Washington will begin requiring remote sellers to either remit sales and use tax or comply with reporting and notice requirements similar to those in Direct Mktg. Ass’n v. Brohl (DMA IV), 814 F.3d 1129 (10th Cir. 2016). Who is subjected to this burden in the land of Nirvana and the Space Needle? Remote sellers with gross receipts in the current or preceding year of at least $10,000 are, which makes Washington state another to skirt around Quill, the SCOTUS case that requires actual, physical presence for a state to have nexus with a taxpayer, with a reporting requirement.

But the legislative change goes further. Not only are retailers who make income from sales within the state required to follow this, but referrers who receive income from referral services within the state are subject to it as well if the total gross income from that is at least $267,000.

With 33 states facing revenue shortfalls in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, there is no doubt a need to increase taxes. However, states can go about this in a wide variety of legal ways. They can expand the tax base by taxing services or currently nontaxable technology. They can even increase the tax rate if they want to. Instead, Washington is imposing these reporting requirements to reach companies with whom they fail to meet the nexus standard to impose collecting and remitting requirements.  This overreaching of the states will likely be challenged. The question is: by whom?

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The United States Constitution expressly forbids ex post facto laws with respect to both the federal and state governments.[i] An ex post facto law is one that retroactively changes the legal status and consequences of a particular action. The easiest way to understand it is in the criminal realm. Today, I ate a yogurt. Two years from now, the government passes a law saying it is a third-degree felony to eat yogurt and makes the law retroactive for a 5-year period. While eating my yogurt today was not against the law, I am still, two years later, guilty of a felony and can be punished accordingly. Fortunately, the government is not too interested in yogurt. Unfortunately, the government is very interested in tax.

In 2014, Michigan passed 2014 PA 282, a retroactive tax law replacing the elective three-factor apportionment formula from the Multistate Tax Compact to which Michigan adhered with a new single-factor apportionment formula. This may have been just another disappointment to Taxpayers, who are regularly disappointed by the creative and nefarious ways in which states try to drum up revenue. But with a retroactive application to 2008, it was just plain devastating.

It is no surprise that the state supreme court upheld the state’s interest in collecting more tax. The case challenging this law was in fact 50 consolidated cases in Gillette Commercial Operations North America & Subsidiaries et al. v. Dep’t of Treasury, No. 325258 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2015). The question now is: will the Supreme Court hear the case? The Department of treasury argues that the Supreme Court can’t. Rather than a retroactive law, the state argues that 2014 PA 282 is simply a clarification of the preexisting law. Therefore, under the state statutory-construction law, the Michigan state court had adequate and independent state law ground to uphold 2014 PA 282 and the Supreme Court of the United States does not have the jurisdiction to overturn it.

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Earlier in 2017, Premier Netcomm Solutions LLC (“Premier”) lost on reconsideration in New Jersey tax court.  The case dealt with the taxability of software as a service (“SaaS”) dating back to an audit from 2004 through 2005.  After initially beating for state, the court overturned a prior decision on reconsideration, which ultimately upheld New Jersey’s tax assessment.

Premier seems to be a classic IT provider in that it provides services such as network supports, internet access, consulting and design of IT and telephone projects, trouble shooting, remote training, data back-up, and network monitoring for businesses.  In the original decision, the court sided with Premier that its sales were not subject to sales tax.  The court concluded that prior to 2005, sales of services related to prewritten software were not taxable. In so doing the court invalidated New Jerseys tax assessment against Premier.

Unhappy with the decision, New Jersey’s Division of Taxation sought reconsideration, which is very difficult to prevail on.  The Court seemed to grant reconsideration because the original case erred fundamentally on its analysis.  Primarily, the court originally believed the law did not tax such services until its 2005 amendment.  However, the amendment was really based on New Jersey’s membership into the Streamline Sales and Use Tax Agreement (“SSUTA”) in 2005, which required it to adopt a uniform definition.  Therefore, based on a 2004 Bulletin, the court reconsidered the case and ruled that the services were and have been subject to tax since 2004.

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Over the past several years software as a service (“SaaS”) has been a booming industry.  Pioneers in the cloud computing industry, like Salesforce, have developed web based applications that offer a wide range of services to the user.  Driven by competitors such as Microsoft, Adobe, Sap, ADP, Oracle, IBM, Intuit and Google, the SaaS industry has become a $204 billion industry and grown by more than 16% last year.

Traditionally, from a sales tax perspective, states tax the sale of tangible personal property but not services.  While many states adhere to that mantra, several states have moved towards taxing software despite being intangible in nature.  Still, it can be difficult to determine whether SaaS is more like a software, which may be taxable, or if it feels more like a service provided, which is not taxable in many states.

States have been consistently inconsistent across the country in determining whether to tax SaaS.  States often have similar statutes and reach completely different conclusions in their quest to analyze SaaS.  Further, many situations occur in which a state can treat two seemingly similar SaaS companies differently within their own state.  In an attempt to comply, companies often struggle with charging the appropriate sales tax in the correct state and/or their state income tax obligations, with respect to SaaS.