can you rely on informal guidance?

Each year, Bloomberg BNA compiles a "Survey of State Tax Departments." The survey is obtained by asking specific questions from state revenue departments regarding what may be viewed as 'grey areas' of multistate taxation.

The Bloomberg BNA State Tax Blog posted about how much weight should be given to informal guidance (like the survey) from state tax departments. The post and those that were a part of the discussion referenced in the post, raised great questions and points, such as:

  1. How much weight should be given to informal guidance? 
  2. The states know their responses will be published, so does that add 'weight' to their response?
  3. The states' responses are NOT binding law and are NOT creating law.
  4. What accountability do the states have for their responses if taxpayers rely on them?
  5. Are the states' responses simply the equivalent of a taxpayer calling the state to obtain guidance? (meaning, it is informal guidance that is not binding and if relied upon, could come back to haunt the taxpayer at a later time)
  6. If no other guidance exists (no statute, no regulation, no case, no ruling, etc.), then the survey provides some guidance as to what the state MAY do. Thus, this is probably where the survey is the most useful. 
  7. If taxpayers are looking for formal guidance, they should request a letter ruling if the state allows it.

At the end of the day, taxpayers are always trying to obtain certainty regarding their tax issues. Unfortunately, it is not possible to achieve 100% certainty when the facts are complex and the state's rules are grey. Consequently, the taxpayer and adviser generally review all binding authority (statutes, regulations, cases, etc.) and unbinding authority (informal guidance, etc.) to develop support for a tax position. This is why we have the lovely 'levels of assurance' such as the 'realistic possibility of success' (33%), 'substantial authority' (40%), or 'more likely than not' (> 50%).

Depending on the situation, taxpayers are commonly balancing risk and the amount of dollars to spend to chase down this elusive certainty.  Accordingly, taxpayers are trying to attain the most cost-effective and practical solution that reduces risk to an acceptable level. Thus, other factors (business, legal, financial) may determine how much effort is taken to support a specific tax position, resulting in some taxpayers choosing to default to paying more tax to avoid risk.

Is your business struggling to find certainty?

What process do you follow to provide your clients with certainty?

How much weight do you place on informal guidance?

How do you balance risk and the cost of obtaining certainty?