Articles Posted in Tangible Personal Property

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Few understand or even bring up sales tax issues when they order pizza. The next time you order pizza, take a look at the receipt and see if the pizza shop charges you for the delivery. Taking it a step further, what happens if you purchase an item and pay for shipping charges? Is tax due on just the item, or is it also due on the delivery charge as well? The answer depends largely on whether the delivery charge is separately stated and if it is optional. This issue will be in center stage for a recent class action filed in Broward County against Pizza Hut.

Lauren Minniti, the class representative, purchased a pizza from Pizza Hut and had it delivered. Pizza Hut allegedly charged her tax based on the charge for the pizza and for the separately stated delivery fee instead of tax on the pizza alone. Was this correct?
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As the internet becomes essential to our everyday lives, states are consistently inconsistent in their attempt to tax cloud computing systems. Cloud computing is “the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer.” Essentially, the term “Cloud” is a metaphor for the internet. Cloud computing allows the user to access data over the internet without storing data on a hard drive. In fact, most internet users rely on these cloud computing systems as an essential tool in their everyday lives.

How should a cloud computing provider determine whether their object is subject to sales tax? A simple two-part test may allow a cloud computing provider a proper vantage point on whether they are subject to sales tax. First, apply a test. Second, ask whether the product is a software or a service? Think of this test as a simple flow chart.
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It’s a grim and nerve-racking day for many when they receive the infamous DR-840, Notice of Intent to Audit Books and Records, from our friends at the Florida Department of Revenue. Many Florida taxpayers often ask themselves, “Why me?” Or, “What did my company do wrong in order to receive this notice?” The answer to both of these questions is obtainable from the Florida sales and use tax auditor by simply asking them. In many situations, the company is audited because its exempt sales ratio is out of the average range for similar companies in its industry. Other companies are flagged for audit because the sales reported on their 12 monthly sales and use tax returns do not correspond to the gross sales reported on their federal income tax return. Many other companies are flagged purely at random.

While the reason may be for a variety of reasons, once the notice is received, the reason for its reception is virtually irrelevant. The more relevant inquiry should be, what should we do next? Ideally, it makes sense for many Florida businesses to hire a law firm or a CPA firm versed in Florida sales and use taxes. This is true even if the company has immaculate records and nothing to hide in connection with a Florida sales and use tax audit. Hiring a professional that is experienced in handling a Florida Sales and Use tax audit is an excellent way to walk you or your client through the audit process. In addition, having a Florida sales and use tax professional is invaluable in helping your company or your client’s company organize the information in a presentable manner that will help keep a sales tax assessment to a minimum.

Florida law and the verbiage on the DR-840 clearly states that the FL DOR cannot start the audit for 60 days and it must start the audit within 120 days. The 60 days is waive-able and the auditor will push for a waiver in order to get the audit moving. We generally recommend that the 60 days not be waived, but instead be used as a period in which to get all of your information organized for presentation. We call this the homework period in which the Taxpayer, if they elect to hire us, is given a checklist of homework to complete within the 60 day period.

The obvious next question is, what should I be organizing?
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Aside from the Marketplace Fairness Act, cloud computing has dominated the sales tax world in 2013. With more and more companies using software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (“PaaS“), and infrastructure as a service (“IaaS“), more and more uncertainty has arisen in the sales tax world.

Cloud.jpgCloud computing is a service that allows users or members of a business to access software from a remote server. It allows businesses to access the same integrated software without the expensive hardware costs because the software is internet based rather than physically based in an office.

Most states with a sales tax, tax software to some extent. Many states tax the purchase of canned software. Canned software is software produced by a manufacturer and not changed or altered for a specific company. If the software is altered, it is not canned software and not subject to sales tax in many states. Still, other states look to whether the customer receives something tangible like a disk with their purchase to determine whether software is taxable or not. But, how does this work if the canned software is accessed in the “cloud”? Is it a sale of tangible personal property? Is it the sale of canned software? A number of problems have been created by this fairly recent innovation, and states are struggling to keep pace.
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On May 6, 2013, Senate passed the Marketplace Fairness Act . It was announced that the bill passed with a vote of 69 to 27. The bill provides for an exception for businesses with sales of less than $1 million annually. States which are members to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement are automatically granted the authority and the remaining states are required to grant the authority. The legislation will now make its way to the House of Representatives, where anything can happen.

The Act is an attempt to provide clarity and certainty in a grey area of the law. While many proponents of the bill seem to think it puts all Internet retailers on a equal playing field, it is really just an enforcement tactic of existing tax law. Those not in favor of the law point to the administrative burdens placed on small taxpayers. It is true that software exists to calculate the tax rates in the countries 45 states with sales tax and some 9,600 jurisdictions, it may becomes extremely burdensome and expensive to determine what is and is not taxable.

I look forward to informing everyone about more developments in this evolving area of the law. I also welcome any comments on the issue.

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Without getting into a tedious history of a sales tax, the tax was essentially created during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. The first sales tax laws were hastily and poorly drafted. The poorly drafted laws were copied from state to state. The sales tax regime was designed to tax individuals on the price of goods acquired for personal consumption. Conversely, the tax should not apply to the purchases made for business use, or what is known as business inputs.

In the early days, the easiest (not necessarily the correct) way was to tax the retail sale of tangible personal property (“TPP”). It is this primitive ideal which is embedded in the 50-60 year old sales tax laws that has created many of the issues in our much more complex economy of the 2000’s. Even with the changing of the times and the economy, our lawmakers and courts continue to ask the age old question that comes along with the foundation of the sales tax policy and design. Courts and lawmakers continue to struggle with what is “TPP” as opposed to real or intangible property. Why has no one stopped to think whether this should be the question at all? Shouldn’t the question be whether the goods are personally consumed as opposed to a business input? It is this fundamental problem and the state’s unwillingness to ask this question that has led to many of the inconsistent and puzzling rulings. These issues have been in the forefront for several decades and until the states change their way of thinking, these issues will continue to be problematic in effectively administering a state sales tax.

A classic example of the TPP versus intangible conundrum is Washington Times Herald v. District of Columbia, 213 F. 2d 23 (D.C. Cir. 1954). This case involved a newspaper publisher which purchased comic strips from an artist. The comic strips were delivered on mats (TPP). In this case the court was confronted with whether the newspaper was purchasing taxable TPP or nontaxable service contracts. The court decided that the transaction was for nontaxable artistic services because without the art the mats were practically worthless.

In a strikingly similar scenario, the D.C. District Court was faced with the same problem in 1964 in District of Columbia v. Norwood, 336 F. 2d 746. Instead of newspaper mats, Norwood purchased motion pictures. Clearly if a drawing delivered on a mat is for professional services, a motion picture delivered on a film is for services as well, right? Without much analysis the court stated that the sales were clearly of taxable TPP.Movie FIlm.jpg
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For decades, courts, state agencies, and state legislatures continue to ask the wrong questions in regards to state sales tax. This continuing practice has led to decades of inconsistent decisions in different states with similar laws. At the heart of the issue is the notion that the states have continually asked the wrong questions related to the policy and design of a sales tax regime. How could taxpayers expect correct results when the states continue to ask the wrong questions? However, it is this inconsistency that has allowed multi-state sales and use tax lawyers to continue to thrive in a marketplace growing with technology and complexity.

Without getting into a tedious history of a sales tax, the sales tax was essentially created during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. The first sales and use tax laws were hastily and poorly drafted and were copied from state to state to state. The sales tax regime was designed to tax individuals on the price of goods acquired for personal consumption. Conversely, the tax should not apply to the purchases made for business use, or what is known as “business inputs.”

In the early days, the easiest (not necessarily the correct) technique was to tax the retail sale of tangible personal property (“TPP”). It is this primitive ideal which is embedded in the original sales tax laws that have grown outdated and have created many of the issues in our much more complex economy of the 2000’s. Even with the changing of the times and the economy, our lawmakers and courts continue to ask the age old question that comes along with the foundation of the sales tax policy and design. Courts and lawmakers continue to struggle with what is “TPP” as opposed to real property. Why has no one stopped to think whether this should be the question at all? Shouldn’t the question be whether the goods are personally consumed as opposed to a business input? It is this fundamental problem and the states’ unwillingness to ask the correct question that has led to many of the inconsistent and puzzling rulings each year. This age old question has been and will continue to be problematic in effectively administering a state sales tax. However, the states’ stubbornness to ask the correct question will provide job security for multi-state sales tax attorneys for years to come.

In a recurring classic example, Northeastern Pennsylvania Imaging Center v. Pennsylvania, 35 A. 3d 752 (Pa. 2011), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was faced with whether an MRI and PET Scan system purchased for over $2 million was subject to sales tax. The system weighed in excess of 15,000 pounds, took five days to install, could only be moved by crane, was anchored into the concrete beneath the floor, and could only be removed by removing the exterior wall. MRI.jpg
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