How to manage your sales and use tax obligations

The Wayfair decision changed the criteria that determine when a company selling goods or services can be required to collect state sales tax. But not all companies affected by the decision have complied.

“I am surprised by the number of companies that have yet to adapt, particularly companies that sell online,” says Stephen Estelle, Tax Manager at Clark Schaefer Hackett. “I continue to come across companies that have heard of Wayfair, but have done nothing about it.”

Smart Business spoke with Estelle about some of the ways companies can keep up with their sales and use tax obligations.

How does a company know where it needs to file?

To know if it has a filing responsibility, a company needs to understand state law and how it applies to the company’s activities in the state.
Wayfair expanded states’ ability to require an out-of-state company to collect the state’s sales tax. Now, states can require an out-of-state company to collect the state’s sales tax if the company has sufficient ‘economic presence’ in the state.

The most common economic threshold for a sales tax requirement is $100,000 in sales or 200 transactions in a state. The traditional parameters, however, such as whether a company has an employee presence or physical locations in the state, still apply. Complicating the situation, each state has its own parameters for determining when tax needs to be collected.

How can companies be sure they’re calculating the taxes correctly?

Calculating tax requires an analysis of state law and an understanding of the state’s sourcing rules. Depending on the state, some transactions are taxed all the time while some are circumstantially exempt.

Typically, a state will source a sale to the jurisdiction where the good is sold or delivered. Identifying that particular jurisdiction, however, can be tricky. While most states have a tax rate lookup system that enables companies to search for the correct jurisdiction and rate, it can be daunting when a company has thousands of customers with different addresses. Complete accuracy would require a check of every single transaction.

Alternatively, a company can invest in sales tax automation software. But, whether that software produces the correct result depends on whether the company gave it the correct information at the start.

What challenges are there for companies that want to handle sales and use tax compliance in-house?

There are three main challenges: personnel, cost and risk.

Calculating sales tax in-house requires at least one individual who is more than just knowledgeable about sales taxes. Companies who invest in such a person risk that person moving on and taking that knowledge with them. Also, sales tax isn’t really a full-time job. Returns are typically due around the 20th of the month, so there’s a lot of downtime for a sales tax expert.

There can also be ongoing technology costs, such as compliance and research software.

Finally, if the person handling sales tax doesn’t rise to the level of ‘expert,’ there’s increased risk that the decisions made will turn out to be incorrect and will lead to tax, penalties and interest on audit.

What are some tools companies can use to help with compliance?

Software can help, but the more the software is asked to do, the more expensive it gets. Also, the software needs to be set up correctly and checked often to ensure its accuracy, and that requires an expert.

Another option is to outsource the function or employ a hybrid solution — for instance, working with a sales tax expert on a quarterly basis to make sure filings are happening in the right states, that tax is being charged when it should be, and that it’s being calculated correctly and for the right jurisdiction.

Although it’s often the smallest item on the invoice, companies should take it seriously, especially now, because states are going to be hungry for revenue. If there is an out-of-state company that hasn’t been filing when it should have, states will be motivated to go after them.

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