A common pitfall for inbound sellers is applying the same concepts used to adopt “no tax” positions made for federal income tax purposes to determinations concerning sales and use tax compliance. Although similar conceptually, separate analyses are required for each determination.
For federal income tax purposes, inbound sellers that are selling goods to customers in the U.S. and do not have a fixed place of business or dependent agent in the U.S. have, traditionally, been able to rely on their country’s income tax treaty with the U.S. for “no tax” positions. Provided that the non-U.S. entity did not have a “permanent establishment” in the U.S., it was shielded from federal income tax and would have a limited federal income tax compliance obligation.
States, however, are generally not bound by comprehensive income tax treaties made with the U.S. Thus, non-U.S. entities can find themselves unwittingly subject to state and local sales and use tax compliance obligations even though they are protected from a federal income tax perspective. With recent changes in U.S. tax law, the burden of complying with sales and use tax filing and collection requirements has increased significantly.
Does your company have a process in place to deal with these new state and local tax compliance obligations?
What has changed? Wayfair―it’s got what a state needs
As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., non-U.S. entities that have sales to customers in the U.S. may have unexpected sales and use tax filing obligations on a go-forward basis. Historically, non-U.S. entities did not have a sales and use tax compliance obligation when they did not have a physical presence in states where the sales occurred.
In Wayfair, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state is no longer bound by the physical presence standard in order for it to impose its sales and use tax regime on entities making sales within the state. The prior physical presence standard was set forth in precedent established by the Supreme Court and was used to determine if an entity had sufficient connection with a state (i.e., nexus) to necessitate a tax filing and collection requirement.
Before the Wayfair ruling, an entity had to have a physical presence (generally either through employees or property located in a state) in order to be deemed to have nexus with the state. The Wayfair ruling overturned this precedent, eliminating the physical presence requirement. Now, a state can deem an entity to have nexus with the state merely for exceeding a certain level of sales or transactions with in-state customers. This is a concept referred to as “economic nexus.”
The Court in Wayfair determined that the state law in South Dakota providing a threshold of $100,000 in sales or more than 200 sale transactions occurring within the state is sufficient for economic nexus to exist with the state. This is good news for hard-pressed states and municipalities in search of more revenue. Since this ruling, there has been a flurry of new state legislation across the country. Like South Dakota, states are actively passing tax laws with similar bright-line tests to determine when entities have economic nexus and, therefore, a sales and use tax collection and filing requirement.
How this impacts non-U.S. entities
This can be a trap for non-U.S. entities making sales to customers in the U.S. Historically, non-U.S. entities lacking a U.S. physical presence generally only needed to navigate federal income tax rules.
Inbound sellers without a physical presence in the U.S. may have very limited experience with state and local tax compliance obligations. When considering all of the state and local tax jurisdictions that exist in the U.S. (according to the Tax Foundation there are more than 10,000 sales tax jurisdictions), the number of sales and use tax filing obligations can be significant. Depending on the level of sales activity within the U.S., a non-U.S. entity can quickly become inundated with the time and cost of sales and use tax compliance.
Going forward, non-U.S. entities selling to customers in the U.S. should be aware of those states that have economic nexus thresholds and adopt procedures so they are prepared for their sales and use tax compliance obligations in real time. These tax compliance obligations will generally require an entity to register to do business in the state, collect sales tax from customers, and file regular tax returns, usually monthly or quarterly.
It is important to note when an entity has an obligation to collect sales tax, it will be liable for any sales tax due to a state, regardless of whether the sales tax is actually collected from the customer. It is imperative to stay abreast of these complex legislative changes in order to be compliant.
At BerryDunn, our tax professionals work with a number of non-U.S. companies that face international, state, and local tax issues. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances, contact one of the experienced professionals in our state and local tax (“SALT”) practice.