pre-packaged state tax planning is dead, maybe

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving holiday week and adventurous Black Friday. Cyber Monday (or week) is upon us - we shall see if any great deals really exist.

As we approach Christmas, we are also approaching the end of another year which causes tax departments and accounting firms to review end of year tax planning options. Specific state tax planning can be done at any time during the year; however, I am curious as to what state tax planning your corporation and clients implemented this year. Was it an idea a consulting firm brought to you? Was it a restructuring idea built on the firm's application to other clients? Was it an idea based off of a court case, a ruling, or simply your company's unique fact pattern (i.e., apportionment, combined v. separate reporting, etc.)?

Legitimate Loopholes

I recently read an article entitled, "Nuances in State Constitutions Can Aid Taxpayers" by Jeff Day at Bloomberg BNA which included comments from Kenneth T. Zemsky, a managing director at Andersen Tax LLC. Mr. Zemsky's comments were taken from a presentation he made at the November 3, 2015 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) conference. If you have a subscription to Bloomberg BNA, I recommend you read it.

One comment that Mr. Zemsky made stood out to me - "legitimate loopholes" exist for many corporate taxpayers, but only customized planning will allow companies to take advantage of them." Custom planning for each client? I think this is something we all know, but Mr. Zemsky is correct. Public accounting firms are well-known for creating planning ideas that they package and utilize at numerous clients over and over. Albeit, the facts may be slightly different, but the idea being implemented is the same. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the idea may have merit and application. In addition, most clients generally ask if the firm has implemented the idea at other companies. Clients want to know if the idea has been successful and withstood state challenges or audit. However, is this the best way to mitigate tax and risk? 

An article by Charles F. Barnwell, Jr. back in 2009 for Tax Analysts entitled,  "State Tax Planning - What's Left?" is a great article about the history of state tax planning and its current and future opportunities. The article discusses how the 'great' structural planning ideas of the 1990s (i.e., intangible holding companies, sales companies, purchasing companies, etc.) are no longer viable. According to Mr. Barnwell, planning ideas are now based on the 'nuts and bolts' of state taxes such as apportionment factor planning, industry-specific characteristics, and maximizing state offered incentives. Mr. Barnwell says, "the best offense may be a good defense" for companies that have "base-shifting type planning" still in tact." Mr. Barnwell is correct. Since 2009 (when the article was published), we have seen companies unwind previous tax planning to reduce exposure. We have also seen states win litigation against corporations and enact new 'guard rails' to limit state tax planning such as related party add-back provisions, combined reporting and discretionary transfer pricing analysis.

What is a legitimate loophole? If you read the Bloomberg BNA article by Jeff Day, it appears Mr. Zemsky believes legitimate loopholes are found by digging deeper into the state's law and procedures to identify clearly applicable opportunities for clients. This approach definitely makes sense, but how is this different from prepackaged planning? Once consultants identify a strategy or 'legitimate loophole' that works for one client, the next step is to see what other clients could also use the strategy? Thus, turning customized planning into a commodity? In other words, legitimate loopholes do exist. However, once found, they may become 'pre-packaged tax planning.'

Perhaps the question isn't whether the planning is customized or pre-packaged, the question is whether the idea is legitimate tax avoidance or something else (Mr. Zemsky describes this 'something else' as a "scam"). I addressed this question in an article I wrote for Tax Analysts back in 2013 entitled, "What Level of Tax Avoidance is Acceptable?" For details, go here.

This brings me back to the question - what tax planning have you recently implemented? What are you thinking of implementing? What questions are you asking before you take the position? What will the FAS 109 / FIN 48 impact be? Will tax return disclosures be required? Are you prepared for an audit? Will the firm be there to defend the position upon audit? Did the position create more risk than benefit?

For more posts on state tax planning in general and specific ideas, check these posts out.