FTB Dishes out Penalties in Droves

If you’re familiar with the way the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) operates in the process of collecting delinquent taxes, then you know that they impose a bunch of different penalties.  There are some common sense penalties, like the penalty for filing late and the penalty for paying late. But there are some other more obscure FTB penalties that may surprise you:

1. Cost Recovery Fees

If the FTB has to do anything to collect the tax due (besides sending you a bill), then they are likely going to charge some sort of collection fee.  And when I say “anything,” I mean anything, such as filing a tax lien, seizing and selling property, intercepting a federal tax refund, filing enforcement, and even simply assigning your case to the collections department.  The fee is supposed to cover the theoretical costs of these revenue collection efforts and I’m sure are rarely commensurate with the actual collection costs.

2. Dishonored Payment Penalty

If your check bounces, or your FTB payment is otherwise rejected due to insufficient funds, then FTB will impose a $25 penalty.  If your payment is $1,250 or more, then the penalty is 2 percent of the payment amount.

3. Mandatory e-Pay Penalty

Certain large payments over $20,000, or payments made where the total tax liability exceeds $80,000, must be made electronically according to California law.  The California tax underpayment penalty imposed by the FTB is 1 percent penalty for failure to comply.

4. Demand to File Penalty

If you don’t file your tax return by the filing deadline, then FTB charges a 25 percent late filing penalty.  If you still do not file after FTB demands that you file, then they will impose a 25 percent penalty on top of the initial failure to file penalty.  This is particularly brutal because they can actually impose penalties and interest even if your tax return shows that a refund is due!

5. Estimated Tax Penalty

This is the penalty imposed  for failure to pay an estimated tax installment.  It also applies when you pay late or underpay.

6. Post-Amnesty Penalty

Taxpayers who have been granted amnesty for any particular tax year must not subsequently owe any new or additional tax, otherwise… you guessed it, another penalty.

FTB Updates Top 500 List

The California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) updated its “Top 500 Delinquent Taxpayers” list this week.  And to dispel any doubt about the effectiveness of this program, FTB also announced that the list shrunk to only 350 before it went live on their website.

Two times a year, the FTB publicizes a list of individuals and corporations with the biggest state tax debts.  Those on the Top 500 list are identified by name, city/state/zip, amount due, tax lien filing date, and information about state-issued licenses.  The license information is relevant because one of the consequences of being in the Top 500 is the FTB has the authority to suspend state-issued licenses such as drivers license, contractor license, state bar membership, medical board, bureau of real estate, department of insurance, etc.

There are several doctors, attorneys, real estate agents, and contractors on the Top 500 list.  There are about 14 individuals shown to be licensed by the State Bar of California and, interestingly, all but one of those licenses are still active.  The one that is no longer active bears the status of “disbarred,” which leads me to believe that the bar itself revoked the license, not the FTB.  Perhaps the FTB understands that suspending a bar license would severely restrict its ability to collect what is owed.

At the top of the list is the individual with the largest state tax debt on the books — the one I like to call “the winner” — Mr. Mon Bill Hom of Los Angeles.  Hom happens to be an attorney with an active bar license.  He owes $6.3 million, with tax problems dating back at least to 1995 (the year the tax lien was filed).  In looking at his state bar profile, it appears that he was suspended for two years back in 1999 after the IRS cleaned out his client trust account and he didn’t have the money to replace it.

I started this post by saying that the Top 500 list is an effective enforcement tool.  Back in August the FTB sent out letters to the potential Top 500 candidates explaining to them that they can avoid being publicly named by resolving their accounts before October 15th.  And in a span of about two months, 150 of them came forward and resolved their accounts with the FTB by either paying in full, entering into an acceptable installment agreement, or settling by way of Offer in Compromise.  I’m sure some of them appealed their cases or filed bankruptcy (which also results in removal from the list), but FTB stated that it was able to collect $5.3 million specifically from debtors trying to avoid the Top 500 list.  I’d call that a success.

State of California Holding $14 million in Tax Refunds

In these dismal economic times, so many hard-working citizens have tax debt up to their eyeballs and are desperately seeking tax relief.  It’s hard to believe there are taxpayers out there who let their refund go unclaimed or who don’t notice when it doesn’t come in the mail.  But every year state and federal taxing agencies publish data about the millions and millions of dollars in refund checks that bounce back to them due to a bad address.  Today the California FTB announced in a press release that it is holding over $14 million in refunds.

Granted, some of these refunds are so small that it is hardly worth a taxpayer’s time to call FTB and update his address.  But FTB stated that at the high end of the spectrum we’re talking about refunds in the $35,000 range.  I suppose some of these taxpayers are very wealthy and don’t need the money.  But I wonder how many of them have moved and don’t want the FTB to know their new address.  Or how many of these refunds are not claimed because the taxpayer knows they are the result of questionable tax strategies?

FTB reminds us that the best way to avoid the problem of a returned refund check is to sign up for direct deposit.

Corporations on FTB's Top 500

In a couple weeks the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) will be submitting its “Top 500” list to state licensing agencies, including the DMV.  The FTB Top 500, if you recall, is a list of California taxpayers with the most serious state tax debts.  If you make the list then you could lose your drivers license, occupational license, professional license.  You may also be precluded from entering into contracts with the state.

The Top 500 now lists applicable licensing agencies, license statuses (i.e., active, canceled, disbarred) and license numbers.  A good chunk of these delinquencies are for corporate taxes, and the corporate income tax chart lists officers by name.

The list is meant to increase voluntary compliance in hopes of closing California’s $10 billion tax gap.  This may be an effective deterrent for individuals concerned with their image and their integrity, but how effective is the public shaming of a defunct corporation?  I suspect that many of the corporate tax debts are associated with corporations that are no longer operating, and who knows how much the FTB will be able to collect on a bunch of closed corporations.

Tax Gap Widening in California

I’m posting this video partly for the rare glimpse inside the California Franchise Tax Board.  Can somebody who works at FTB help me to understand what all those aqua colored contraptions are for?  It looks like they may be used to sort mail, but for all I know, they are the machines that actually assist in processing our state returns.

The actual story reported in this video clip is that more and more Californians are not paying their taxes and that this impacts all residents of the state either directly or indirectly.  The tax gap in California has nearly doubled in the past few years, according to the report.  Jerome Horton, spokesperson for FTB, is quoted saying that the state sees people who fail to pay their taxes as criminals.  The report naively lumps honest taxpayers with unpaid tax debt into the same category as tax evaders.  I would like to say that this the reporter’s error, but it definitely appears that Horton shares this view.

California Tax News

Today the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) announced that it is now accepting 2011 state tax returns.

California is falling in line with the federal government as far as the 2012 filing deadline. You must have your tax return postmarked no later than Tuesday, April 17th for it to be considered timely.  The standard filing deadline is April 15th, but that falls on a Sunday this year. And Monday, April 16th is Emancipation Day, A District of Columbia holiday, which has the same effect as a national holiday when it comes to tax deadlines.  But even though the April filing deadline is the 17th, the extension deadline will still be October 15th for federal tax returns.

  • The top individual tax rate in California decreased from 9.55 percent to 9.3 percent.
  • The standard deduction increased from $3,670 to 3,769 (increase from $7,340 to $7,538 for joint filers)
  • The dependent exemption credit increased from $99 to $315 per dependent (personal exemption increased from $99 to $102 and from $198 to $204 for joint or surviving spouses)
  • Child and dependent care expense credit is worth up to $1,125 for those who qualify

FTB vs. BOE

Navigating your way around the IRS can be a formidable task, one that many prefer to leave in the hands of their tax attorney or other tax practitioner. However, practitioners agree that the California equivalent — the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) — is even worse. In general, the California rules tend to be tougher than the federal rules and the FTB personnel tend to be more difficult and steadfast in enforcing their rules.

One specific complexity in California has to do with the procedure for appealing a tax case. Some states have a state tax court serving as the proper venue after a case has been appealed to the limits at the administrative level, which mirrors the federal process and Federal Tax Court. But, of course, California does things differently. Once you have exhausted your options administratively, there is nowhere to go except the State Board of Equalization (BOE). The BOE consists of fiveelected members that functions like a court, but is not a court. This article from Robert W. Wood further describes the “quirkiness” of the California BOE.

Non-FTB Tax Collectors

If you live in California, the tax man who comes pounding unexpectedly on your door to collect overdue state taxes might not be a tax man at all.  The California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) hires private collecting agencies (PCAs) to do some of their dirty work for them.  FTB says they keep a close eye on their PCAs to ensure they are treating taxpayers fairly and safeguarding their private information.

The IRS has tried this in the past too with limited success.  My own personal experience with the PCAs hired by the IRS was that they were given so very little authority to actually resolve cases that it seemed a waste of time and resources.  The IRS initiated PCA contracts in 2006, but discontinued the program in early 2009 due to pressure from advocacy groups who said the collection practices were often abusive.  Also, the PCAs weren’t as effective as expected, meaning they didn’t collect as much revenue as their public counterparts.

California’s New and Improved “Top 250 List”

Normally “first place” is a position that many aspire to.  Unless you occupy the first spot on California’s Top 250 Delinquent Taxpayers list.

California tax collectors (employees of the Franchise Tax Board) have a reputation for being, how shall we say this, . . . very zealous in their duties.  The FTB stops at nothing to collect overdue taxes, even rivaling the efforts and tactics of the IRS.  One of the ways California encourages tax compliance is by publishing its annual “Top 250 Delinquent Taxpayers” list on its website as a type of public shaming exercise.  Right now the winners are Halsey & Shannon Minor of Los Angeles who owe exactly $14,247,341.09 in personal income taxes.  Apparently nobody in the entire state of California owes more state taxes than they do.

But even if you’re at the bottom of the list, the consequences are the same.  And now, with the passage of AB 1421, it’s more than just the tax bill and the shame. Consequences now include having your drivers license, and possibly professional license, suspended.  Also, the list will be doubled so that it includes the top 500 worst offenders.  The author of the bill, Henry Perea, has strong words for California’s top 500:

Everyone on this list has had a chance to work with the state to resolve their tax issues but have chosen instead to bury their heads in the sand and continue to spend lavishly.

But I wonder how accurate that statement is.  According to the FTB website, the only criteria for inclusion on the list is that the taxpayer owes over $100,000 and falls into the top 250 (now 500).  The oldest tax liens were filed in 1996, but many of them were just filed last year.  At any rate, California has sent a clear message to the wealthiest taxpayers in the elite neighborhoods of LA and San Francisco.  Now they should try to get that message to the masses to make it really effective.