By Orlando Gotay

Our beloved snowbirds arrive in droves.  Palm Springs welcomes them with open arms. In exchange for lovely weather, our Canadian friends eat, drink, play, making Palm Springs their home, until spring arrives, and it is no longer glacial in the provinces. I love watching how they seem to arrive in “waves”… folks from the furthermost ones already with us.

We all like that.  But there are other eyes ominously looking, too.  The Internal Revenue Service and the California Franchise Tax Board keep close tabs on the presence of snowbirds.  Unsuspecting visitors can fall into very significant and expensive tax traps.

Count the days you stay in the United States. If you stay here long enough and you do not take specific affirmative steps, the IRS could consider you a resident, and tax you accordingly.  U.S. residents are taxed on their worldwide income.  Have you got “foreign” bank accounts? You would have to report them to the US Treasury.  Do you have Canadian Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSP) or Registered Retirement Income Funds (RRIF)?  You have to report those, too.  Because of the weird overlay of federal and state taxation, California will tax you on the income made by those accounts, even if no distributions were taken out.  Harsh, eh?

The headache can be avoided if one keeps careful track of the days spent in the United States.  Generally, every day or fraction counts.  The IRS formula has a three-year “look back” period. This year’s days count in full; last year’s by half, and the preceding year’s, by one sixth.

Suppose you come in on Nov. 1 and leave April 1 every year.  That’s 90+60=150 days (Did you forget to count January through April for this year? You were here, weren’t you?) For year 2, it would be 75 days (half of 150), while for year 3 it would be 25.  That adds to 250, and you would meet the test.  Bingo!

Exceeding the magic number, 180, satisfies the “substantial presence test” and you will be deemed a resident.  The IRS folks no doubt will turn on the K-Mart “flashing blue light” special, throw confetti in their offices and open bags of Doritos whenever this happens.

My recommendation? Keep track of your days. The clock starts running the second you cross the border.

Keep a record of every day you spend in the United States. If you meet the substantial presence test, not all is lost.  If you have a closer connection with a foreign country (Oh, Canada!), you can file a form claiming the “closer connection exception” to the substantial presence test.  (Don’t you love this?). You can even claim a closer connection to two foreign countries.  This form is due by April 15, even if you have no US tax obligation.  A little bit of planning can go a long way to help you understand how to recognize and act regarding U.S. and California income tax laws.

Orlando Gotay is a Tax Attorney in private practice, based out of Palm Springs.