What the US Supreme Court Sales Tax Ruling Means for You

If you are an online retailer, your world just changed in a big way.

In a narrow 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that states now have a right to force out-of-state business to collect and pay sales taxes on sales to their customers. This means that if you do business nationally, you may soon be responsible for sales taxes in any state where you have customers. This article is a guide to how this new ruling may affect you, and what you can do about it.

Online sales tax collection: How we got here

First, let’s start with a little history.

Until recently, out-of-state sales taxes were not an issue for many businesses. According to a legal precedent set in 1992 in the Quill Corporation vs. North Dakota case, businesses were not required to collect sales taxes from out-of-state customers, unless you had a physical presence or “nexus” in that state. (Note that this only applied to collecting these taxes: consumers have always technically been responsible for paying them, albeit with a sketchy patchwork of enforcement.)

This latest Supreme Court ruling in Wayfair vs. South Dakota overturns this precedent, on the grounds that it no longer reflects the economic reality of today’s massive online retailing environment. Quarterly retail e-commerce sales have grown nearly fourfold over the last decade to just under US $125 billion per quarter in Q1 2018 (and a record $452 billion annually in 2017), while annual sales are projected to nearly double to US $638 billion between 2016 and 2022 – on the order of 20% of total retail sales.

These figures represent a lot of tax revenue for states to leave on the table, and few states want to see these revenues decline every year. And in recent years, 31 states have found loopholes for collecting these taxes anyway, by either tightening the definition of “nexus” (for example, paying commissions to referral websites in that state) or requiring documentation and reporting of large purchases. But now, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for any state to simply require sales tax collection.

How this ruling will affect your business

So what will the impact of this ruling be on you and your business? The answer is, “it depends.”

For now, everyone is waiting to see how states will respond to this new ruling. New legislation will take time to be crafted and approved. And small business may catch a break: for example, in the case at hand before the Supreme Court, South Dakota only required sales tax collection for sales volumes in excess of $100,000 or 200 transactions per year. But given how 40 states had petitioned the Supreme Court to rule in favor of this – and bricks-and-mortar businesses have railed against the unfair tax advantages of online sales – it is a safe bet that more sales tax collection with be in the future of many businesses.

Another wild card will be how states treat tax rates for out-of-state purchases. Inc Magazine points out that there are currently close to 10,000 separate taxing jurisdictions in the United States, giving one example of how sales in Chicago require the collection of four distinct taxes – a city tax, county tax, state tax, and an additional “special” tax. States may mandate the use of the same tax levies as in-state purchases, although there have also been calls to simplify out-of-state sales tax rates.

Automation to the rescue

Needless to say, this ruling promises to increase the costs and complexity of selling products across state lines. But for most businesses, the rational choice is to automate the computation of sales tax rates. Service Objects’ DOTS FastTax service provides real-time sales tax data based on your customer’s contact information. Synchronized with tax authorities nationwide, FastTax integrates address validation and geolocation to guarantee accuracy, in a world where tax rates can very from street to street.

We can’t stop the evolution of retail buying patterns and e-commerce. Nor can we control what happens with sales tax policies from here. But we can make both of these things much less frustrating, with solutions that integrate directly with your CRM or marketing automation software. Contact us today to learn how FastTax can help put much of your tax compliance on autopilot, now and in the future.

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