Wayfair Decision Imposes New State Tax Burden on Foreign Businesses Selling into the U.S. by Karen A. Lake, CPA
Posted on October 15, 2018 by Karen Lake
The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair has far-reaching impact on the state and local sales tax (SALT) obligations and previous competitive advantages of online and foreign businesses that sell products into the U.S.
The court’s ruling eliminates the prevailing physical presence test, which requires sellers to collect sales tax from customers who live in states where they own property or employ workers.
Instead, the court, under Wayfair, introduces an economic nexus test based on the sellers’ sales volume into each state. More specifically, U.S. states may now impose sales tax collection obligations on sellers, foreign or domestic, that conduct more than $100,000 in sales or more than 200 transactions in their jurisdictions in a given year regardless of whether the sellers has a physical presence in that locale. This economic nexus standard varies by state.
For example, if a foreign company that sells tangible goods from its headquarters in South America into the U.S. meets the sufficient dollar/transaction threshold in a particular U.S. state, the company would be required to collect sales and/or use tax on all orders received from customers in that state. This would apply even if the company does not have a permanent establishment (PE) in that state. When the company’s sales meet the test for establishing a meaningful and substantial presence in multiple states, it would need to collect and remit sales tax in each of those jurisdictions. With economic nexus laws, states will now be able to enact or enforce sales or transaction threshold and compel more companies outside of their borders to collect tax on sales made to in-state customers.
The Wayfair decision places a significant administrative burden on foreign businesses. International tax treaties generally apply solely to income taxes on the federal level. As a general rule, tax treaties do not apply to U.S. states, and bilateral tax treaties generally do not apply to non-income taxes at the state level. Therefore, foreign companies with U.S. customers may not escape sales and use tax obligations on the state and local levels. Instead, non-U.S. companies have a potential U.S. tax collection and filing responsibility when they meet the sufficient dollar/transaction threshold in a particular state regardless of whether or not they have a permanent establishment (PE) there.
It is important to note that while the U.S. Commerce Clause prohibits states from imposing excessive burdens on interstate commerce without Congressional approval, the Supreme Court has demonstrated its authority to “formulate rules to preserve the free flow of interstate commerce” when Congress fails to enact legislation. In its opinion in Wayfair, the court affirms that the dollar/transaction threshold satisfies South Dakota’s burden to establish economic nexus and impose tax on businesses that are “fairly related to the services provided by the state,” including “the benefits of a trained workforce and the advantages of a civilized society”. This final factor, which demonstrates a fair relationship between the tax imposed and the services provided by a state, can be easily applied to foreign companies that conduct business in U.S. states.
Foreign businesses must consider how the Wayfair decision will affect their sales and profits, and they must take steps to comply with state-level taxation going forward. This may involve assessing the volume of their transactions in each U.S. state, gaining an understanding of and a method for applying the SALT regimes in each U.S. state to their sales orders, and developing communication to let customers know that sales tax will be added onto future purchases.
About the Author: Karen A. Lake, CPA, is state and local tax (SALT) specialist and an associate director of Tax Services with Berkowitz Pollack Brant, where she helps individuals and businesses navigate complex federal, state and local tax laws, and credits and incentives. She can be reached at the firm’s Miami office at (305) 379-7000 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.