Paying Your Use Tax… the Party’s Over

April 12th, 2011 by Doug Boswell

If you own a California business that has made in excess of $100,000 in gross receipts in the last calendar year, you are required to pay use tax. This makes you what is called a qualified purchaser, and you are required by Section 6225 of the Revenue and Taxation Code to register with the Board of Equalization (BOE) to whom you must pay the use tax.

Actually, the state government has automatically registered every business in California that grosses $100,000 or more and given them an account number and password. The use tax, which has been around since 1935, is the tax that applies when you purchase some tangible merchandise like supplies or equipment for your business from another state where California sales tax is not charged. Most such merchandise purchased, ranging from books to millions of dollars worth of equipment, are not reported and thus not taxed. Sales tax is the tax that is paid on purchases made within California. Both of these taxes are calculated based at the same rates. For California, Publication 71 lists the various rates applied to each county and city.

But the process of collecting the use tax has not been without problems. For one thing, when this went into effect in 2010, all qualified purchasers were required to file their BOC-401-DS Use Tax returns  for the previous three years even if they had no purchases to report. There were complaints that the approximately 180,000 qualified purchasers were not given enough time to compile their records from three years back since the letters from the BOE informing them of their automatic registration only started going out as of March 1st of that year. What’s more, it was, and still is, virtually impossible for most business owners to track whether every website from which they purchased merchandise as far back as 2007 paid California taxes. But since you’ve been tracking those items ever since, you now know exactly what your use tax obligation is for each item, right?

But there are still plenty of headaches left. The use tax must be filed each year by April 15 and no extensions are allowed, even if the qualified purchaser files an income tax extension. Additionally, the use tax filing can only be done online. What can further inconvenience and complicate the matter is that some of the information required in filing the use tax is the same as that for filing income tax.

Failure to comply with paying the use tax results in a 10% penalty plus interest consistent with the law. The BOE has the authority to waive the penalty, and has typically done so for the retroactive years, but does not have the authority to change the deadline. That can only be accomplished by a change in legislation. Even your tax preparer is not spared. They are fined $50 for each client they fail to ask about purchases made outside California, unless they check every invoice, because credit card statements do not give this information.

It gets better. Let’s assume that instead of purchasing a book you bought a computer monitor and were not charged sales tax. You register for use tax, duly pay the use tax, but the Board of Equalization asks you, “Have you registered to pay the eWaste fees?”

A couple of years ago California added a fee; some would call it a tax, on sales of LCD and cathode ray tube devices (generally, computer monitors, flat screens and laptops). This program, administered by the BOE, is separate from sales and use tax.

So what would your response be to the BOE? Perhaps you’d say, “OK, how can I pay the fee on my use tax return?” Well, you can’t. The program is separate and has separate registration and reporting. So if you are impacted by this, you must register separately, and make your payment separately from the use tax payments.

Adding to the joy is the thought that once you register for the eWaste program, you must file a form every year even if you never again have to pay an eWaste fee. It’s yet another registration number to keep track of, and more paperwork to handle.

So the next time you see a great deal on the Internet for something you need for your business, think again about loading up your shopping cart, and consider the true cost, especially if it’s a computer. Oh, and by the way, the use tax applies to your non-business purchases as well. Sweet.


Disclaimer: All of the items above are for information only, and are not meant as tax advice. Please consult your own tax advisor to see how each item impacts your own situation.


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