Q&A: Escaping California’s tax auditors is tough even after leaving the state

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.

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.

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