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Escaping California’s tax auditors is tough even after leaving the state

Escaping California’s tax auditors is tough even after leaving the state
Moving can be a taxing experience, even after you leave a state. High-tax states such as California employ auditors to make sure you really relocated. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Dear Liz: My husband and I will be trying out several different areas after the sale of our Los Angeles area house, which will be some time this summer. What happens if we end up renting in three different states? I'm under the impression that we need to be able to prove that we resided in a particular state for six months and one day in order to say we are residents of that state. Even though my husband has been retired for many years, he still does a small amount of business through a company based in Southern California. Will we be forced to pay California tax even though we are residing elsewhere?

Answer: California, like other higher-tax states, has residency auditors whose specialty is asserting that affluent people who have left the state are still legal residents and thus are subject to its taxes. The audits can be stunningly thorough, looking at everything from the doctors you visit to where your artwork and other valuable possessions are stored.

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If audited, you would need to prove that you have a fixed, permanent residence elsewhere and that it’s truly your home. And yes, it’s up to the taxpayer to prove this — there’s no presumption of innocence in tax audits, says tax attorney Mark Klein, chairman of Hodgson Russ LLP in New York City. (New York is another state with notoriously hard-nosed residency auditors.)

Just leaving the state for six months and registering to vote elsewhere typically won’t be enough. You likely would need to spend substantially more time in your new “home” state than in California. Klein, who recently taught a session on establishing residency at the AICPA’s annual ENGAGE conference, tells his clients to spend at least two months in the new place for every month they spend in the old one.

Also, you should “stick the landing,” in Klein’s words. Let’s say you try to establish residency in Nevada but then move to Florida by the time California’s auditors find you. They may well decide that your Nevada stay was temporary and that you were still subject to California taxes during the time you lived in the Silver State.

Escaping the long arm of California’s tax auditors could be tough while you’re still figuring out where to live next. You’d be smart to consult a CPA experienced with California residency audits for advice on how to cut ties to the state cleanly.

Limiting your rate shopping window

Dear Liz: We’re planning to refinance our mortgage and are concerned about generating multiple credit inquiries which would lower our excellent credit scores. Is there some kind of licensed, bonded ethical middle-agent who could get just one official credit report from each of the three bureaus and then send it to all the lenders I designate? Our FICOs are so good that we want lenders to compete for our refi business but don’t want the process itself to lower FICOs just for inquiries only.

Answer: The FICO formula has you covered. With the FICO scores most lenders use, multiple mortgage inquiries made within a 45-day window are aggregated together and counted as one. Furthermore, any inquiries made within the previous 30 days are ignored entirely. That allows you to rate shop for mortgages without dramatically affecting your scores.

The FICO formula extends this “de-duplication” process to two other types of borrowing: auto loans and student loans. Only similar types of inquiries are grouped together, however. If you shopped for both mortgages and auto loans, then two inquiries eventually would be factored into your credit scores, rather than just one.

Credit cards, personal loans and other types of borrowing don’t get the same treatment. If you apply for two credit cards while shopping for a mortgage, you would have three inquiries — two that are immediately factored into your scores and a third that would be counted after 30 days had passed.

Also, some lenders use older versions of the FICO formula that have a shorter rate-shopping window — 14 days instead of 45. If you want to be absolutely sure your mortgage shopping has a minimal impact on your scores, you can limit your shopping to that two-week period.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon Blvd., No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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