Taxpayer Bill of Rights

State Tax Notices: A Game?

State tax notices, got to love them.

I don't know about you, but I am seeing a lot more state tax notices being received by companies. Not only are they first time notices, but they are repeat notices, month after month. This is even after the taxpayer/company has responded to the first notice.

It often feels like the state taxing authority never looked at the response sent by the company.

Actually, I recently called a state taxing authority because a company received a repeat notice, and the state said they were probably six months behind on processing incoming responses/mail, etc. Therefore, the company would continue to receive a repeat notice every month until the company's initial response was processed.

Disregarding repeat notices for the moment, even the first notice a company receives gives the perception that the state taxing authority did not even look at the documents that were attached to the originally filed return. The attachments often explain or provide the information that the notice is now requesting. This causes companies and taxpayers to devote additional time and resources to explain something again and again.

Can't taxing authorities get better? Is it just a computer system gone awry? Lack of resources?

What can taxpayers do to eliminate notices and repeat notices?

I understand it isn't always the taxing authority's fault, some taxpayers don't provide adequate information. But for those that do, the notices keep coming.

Sometimes it just feels like a game. A game in which the taxing authorities just want a company or taxpayer to give up and pay the additional tax, interest and/or penalties being imposed.

Time for State Taxes to Be REWRITTEN

Sometimes we get so caught up in the litigation and proposed legislation that we don't stop to ask whether we should even be going in this direction. Perhaps we are getting the wrong answers because we are asking the wrong questions. It's time for state taxes to be rewritten. For politics to get out of the way. 

I read an article this week, written by Michael J. Bologna and edited by Ryan Tuck for Bloomberg BNA regarding state tax policy (entitled, "Kill Corporate Income Tax, Seek Low Rates"; requires a subscription to BBNA to access). The focus of the article were comments made at the August 10th National Conference of State Legislatures program in Chicago by William Fox, a professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, and Therese J. McGuire, a professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Overall, I agree with their comments about what a fair tax system should look like, and how the current state tax regimes are complex, unfair and inefficient. The current taxing schemes cause compliance burdens for taxpayers, administration burdens for state governments, and inconsistent revenue.

If the ideal tax structure contains low rates, broad bases and simplicity, then why do states keep making their tax systems more complex? 

States continually run into budget problems and resource constraints, yet the tax systems are not adjusted to make it possible for revenue departments to operate efficiently and effectively.

Politics makes it almost impossible for tax structures to change to fit modern economies. For example, when will all services become subject to sales tax by all states? How will states tax digital and remote sales without enacting unconstitutional taxes?

If corporate income taxes only account for approximately 8% of all state taxes collected, then why is so much effort and litigation expended by both taxpayers and governments?

States keep enacting state tax schemes that favor in-state taxpayers such as single sales factor apportionment, market-based souring, unitary combined reporting and digital sales tax laws, when the simple solution is to widen the tax base and lower the rates. This may actually cause more companies to move into a state. It would more than likely decrease the compliance burden and potential for audit controversies.

Will and should more states consider replacing their corporate income tax with a gross receipts tax similar to the Ohio Commercial Activities Tax or the Washington Business and Occupation Tax? 

Like a person that creates his own problems and then spends his life complaining about them, that's what state taxes have become. We can't expect a different result if we keep doing the same thing. It's time to get off the merry-go-round.

the fixer and preventer

At my house, I often refer to myself as "the Fixer."  Why?  Well, I live in a house full of girls (my wife, two daughters and a shitzu).  As most men encounter, they often have a "honey do list" that accumulates over time.  However, on a weekly basis there seems to be things that constantly need attention, maintenance or "fixing."  Examples may include:  cell phones not working properly, computers not working properly, IPads, toys, etc.

Every family needs a "fixer" (whether it is male or female).  Someone who can fix almost anything because unfortunately, everything in this world seems to be made to break down at some point.  Everything needs constant maintenance or "fixing."

In the state and local tax world, this seems to be the case as well.  Every day represents a new court case, new legislation, new business decisions, new fact patterns, and lovely audits and notices, etc.  Constant change is inevitable.  Constant change can lead to problems and issues that require maintenance or "fixing."  Hence, every company needs a state and local tax "fixer."  Someone who can provide leverage when it is required.  Someone who lightens the burden, and is a strong advocate when needed.  Someone who can identify the right-size, most cost-effective and practical solution.  

The key to being a good "fixer" is also being a good "preventer."   The more problems you can prevent, the less problems you will have to fix.  Hence, a good fixer will be as proactive as possible instead of just reacting to the constant "nagging" or "fire drills" that pop up.

Do you have a "fixer" at home? 

Do you have a state and local tax "fixer" and "preventer" for your business?

what level of tax avoidance is permissible?

The following is an excerpt from my December 2, 2013 article in Tax Analysts State Tax Notes:

Here’s a multiple choice: the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is (a) whatever the IRS says, (b) a smart lawyer, (c) 10 years in prison, (d) all of the above. — Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) in The Firm

According to the courts, tax avoidance is legal, but tax evasion is not. However, tax avoidance without business purpose or economic substance may be treated as a sham and disallowed. The history of state tax planning and two recent conflicting state decisions raise a question: What level of tax avoidance is acceptable?

Senate Finance Committee member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, once said that at the heart of every abusive tax shelter is a tax lawyer or accountant. That may be true, but what about legal tax planning and avoidance? Who, or what, is at the heart of tax avoidance? The answer to that may depend on the experience of the individual responding — whether he has worked for the government or has represented taxpayers against the government. Hence, we all decide whether tax avoidance should be allowed based on our own biases. For example, I have always worked as a taxpayer representative or advocate. Thus, I naturally lean toward the taxpayer’s point of view.

From the taxpayer’s side, I have experienced tax authorities abuse power, neglect the law, and use vague laws to raise revenue. States have imposed unconstitutional state taxes and pleaded bankruptcy when found guilty. On the other side, I have experienced taxpayers and advisers who analyze laws to the finite detail to wiggle around corners and yet stay within the boundaries of the law. As a result, both government and taxpayers can take advantage of the law, but who is right? What is acceptable? What came first — aggressive tax planning or overreaching and vague tax laws?


"We are what we allow" - if you watch Grey's Anatomy, then you may know I got this quote from last week's show. When Dr. Grey made the comment, I was like 'yes,' we are what we allow. If we allow others to treat us small, then we will be small. If we allow others to define who we are and what we do, then we will become that version of ourselves.

We have a choice. We have a daily decision. Are we going to be what we want to be? Or will we allow others to decide who we will be and how they treat us?

In regards to working in the state tax profession, whether you work in a corporate tax department, the Big 4 or a small regional firm, people in your department or partners will try to define who you are. They will treat you a certain way. You need to decide if you are okay with how they are treating you. Are you who you want to be? Is how they are treating you interfering with who you want to become? Just say no. Stop it today. Decide for yourself.

In regards to state taxation, corporations can get ran over by auditors, by unconstitutional laws, by unreasonable compliance deadlines and notices. Will you sit by and let it go on? Or will you stand up? Will you fight? Will you take action? Will your company defend itself? Will your company lobby for better policy? Will you take your audit issues to appeals? 

We are what we allow.


taxpayer rights have expiration dates

Taxpayers have rights at the federal and state levels. Do you know what they are? Have you really looked at them? We often assume we know what the taxpayer bill of rights say, or that they don't really matter, but it's good to be reminded.

I am planning a series of blog posts covering private letter ruling request procedures by each state, but wanted to start with taxpayer rights. Since I am based in Virginia, let's start here.

In Virginia, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights are provided to guarantee that (1) the rights, privacy, and property of Virginia taxpayers are adequately safeguarded and protected during tax assessment, collection, and enforcement processes administered under the revenue laws of the Commonwealth, and (2) the taxpayer is treated with dignity and respect.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights compiles, in one document, brief but comprehensive statements which explain, in simple, nontechnical terms, the rights and obligations of the Department and taxpayers. The rights afforded taxpayers to assure that their privacy and property are safeguarded and protected during tax assessment and collections are available only insofar as they are implemented in other sections of the Code of Virginia or rules of the Department.

The rights guaranteed to Virginia taxpayers in the Code of Virginia and the Department's rules and regulations are:

  1. The right to available information and prompt, courteous, accurate responses to questions and requests for tax assistance.
  2. The right to request assistance from a taxpayers' rights advocate of the Department, who is responsible for facilitating the resolution of taxpayer complaints and problems not resolved through the normal administrative channels within the Department.
  3. The right to be represented or advised by counsel or other qualified representatives at any time in administrative interactions with the Department; the right to procedural safeguards with respect to recording of meetings during tax determination or collection processes conducted by the Department; and the right to have audits, inspections of records, and meetings conducted at a reasonable time and place except in criminal and internal investigations.
  4. The right to abatement of tax, interest, and penalties attributable to any taxes administered by the Department, when the taxpayer reasonably relies upon binding written advice furnished to the taxpayer by the Department through authorized representatives in response to the taxpayer's specific written request which provided adequate and accurate information.
  5. The right to obtain simple, nontechnical statements which explain the procedures, remedies, and rights available during audit, appeals, and collection proceedings, including, but not limited to, the rights pursuant to this Taxpayer Bill of Rights and the right to be provided with an explanation for denials of refunds as well as the basis of the audit, assessments, and denials of refunds which identify any amount of tax, interest, or penalty due and which explain the consequences of the taxpayer's failure to comply with the notice.
  6. The right to be informed of impending collection actions which require sale or seizure of property or freezing of assets, except jeopardy assessments, and the right to at least fourteen days' notice in which to pay the liability or seek further review.
  7. After a jeopardy assessment, the right to have an immediate review of the jeopardy assessment.
  8. The right to seek review, through formal or informal proceedings, of any adverse decisions relating to determinations in the audit or collections processes.
  9. The right to have the taxpayer's tax information kept confidential unless otherwise specified by law.
  10. The right to procedures for retirement of tax obligations by installment payment agreements which recognize both the taxpayer's financial condition and the best interests of the Commonwealth, provided that the taxpayer gives accurate, current information and meets all other tax obligations on schedule.
  11. The right to procedures for requesting release of liens filed by the Department and for requesting that any lien which is filed in error be so noted on the lien cancellation filed by the Department and in a notice to any credit agency at the taxpayer's request, provided such request is made within three years of the release of the lien by the Department.
  12. The right to procedures which assure that the individual employees of the Department are not paid, evaluated, or promoted on the basis of the amount of assessments or collections from taxpayers.
  13. The right to have the Department begin and complete its audits in a timely and expeditious manner after notification of intent to audit.

The key to the taxpayer bill of rights is to know them and know the procedures surrounding each right. Some taxpayer rights require action by the taxpayer to enforce the right within a specific passage of time (i.e., 30 days, 60 days or 3 years). This is specifically true in regards to protesting audit assessments and filing refund claims. Consequently, some rights have expiration dates.

They say, "knowledge is power." They also say, "the greatest gap in the world is the gap between knowing and doing." When dealing with state taxes, they couldn't be more right.