Tax lien legislation signed by Governor McMaster

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Tax liens will no longer be filed locally when the system is implemented

tax-lien.jpgSouth Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed tax lien legislation on March 28 that may change the way titles are examined.

The legislation, an amendment to South Carolina Code §12-54-122, is intended to allow the Department of Revenue (DOR) to implement a statewide system of filing and indexing tax liens centrally, that is, “accessible to the public over the internet or through other means”. Once the new system in in place, the clerks of court and registers of deeds will be relieved of their statutory obligation to maintain newly filed tax liens.

The stated effective date of the legislation is July 1, 2019, but nothing in the legislation sets a deadline for the DOR to act, and, in fact, the statute indicates the DOR “may” implement a statewide system.

The new law states that it is not to be construed as extending the effectiveness of a tax lien beyond ten years from the filing date, as set out in South Carolina Code §12-54-120.

When the new system is implemented, the law requires a notice to be posted in each county where liens are generally filed providing instructions on how to access the DOR’s tax lien database.

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Reminder for dirt lawyers of a “secret lien” trap

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The sale of a majority of the assets of a business

Real estate lawyers despise unrecorded liens. I like to refer to them as secret liens. One such trap for the unwary dirt lawyer in South Carolina is the state tax lien imposed by Code §12-54-124. This statute was effective June 18, 2003, and I can vividly remember the day we first read it and scratched our heads about what it meant.

The statute reads:

“In the case of the transfer of a majority of the assets of a business, other than cash, whether through a sale, gift, devise, inheritance, liquidation, distribution, merger, consolidation, corporate reorganization, lease or otherwise, any tax generated by the business which was due on or before the date of any part of the transfer constitutes a lien against the assets in the hands of a purchaser, or any other transferee, until the taxes are paid. Whether a majority of the assets have been transferred is determined by the fair market value of the assets transferred, and not by the number of assets transferred. The department may not issue a license to continue the business to the transferee until all taxes due the State have been settled and paid and may revoke a license issued to the business in violation of this section.” (Emphasis added.)

That’s it! Very simple, but how are those terms defined?  What’s a business? Is a rental house in Pawleys Island a business?  How can a purchaser’s lawyer know whether taxes are due to South Carolina by the seller?  How can a purchaser’s lawyer know whether the sale of one Subway store is a sale of the majority of the assets of a franchisee’s business?

I had a friend and former law school professor who worked at the Department of Revenue at the time, so I called him and told him we were struggling with the meaning of the statute.  He gave me two very valuable pieces of information: (1) the terms in the statute are defined as the Internal Revenue Code defines them; and (2) the Department of Revenue (DOR) was likely to give us some guidance at some future date.

We struggled with the definitions in the Internal Revenue Code and finally decided that unless a property is an owner-occupied single family residence, the closing attorney should consider that it might be a business asset.

Thankfully, in 2004, the DOR did provide guidance in the form of Revenue Ruling 04-2. The Revenue Ruling stated that the code section does not apply if the purchaser receives a certificate of compliance from the DOR stating that all tax returns have been filed and all taxes generated by the business have been paid. The certificate of compliance is valid, according to the Revenue Ruling, if it is obtained no more than thirty days before the sale.

This Revenue Ruling also authorized attorneys to accept Transferor Affidavits, in the form promulgated by the DOR, when the transferor can state that the assets subject to the transfer are not business assets or are less than a majority of the transferor’s business assets, based on fair market value, in the current and other planned transfers.

house mousetrapThe Revenue Ruling addressed whether a vacation home is a “business” by stating that it is not a business if IRC §280A limits the deduction of vacation home rental expenses. That’s a little deep for dirt lawyers, so the safe approach is to always obtain a certificate of compliance or Transferor Affidavit when you close on that rental home in Pawleys Island.

I like to remind dirt lawyers that they are not tax lawyers (unless they ARE tax lawyers). Generally, when you represent a purchaser in a real estate transaction, do not give the seller tax advice on how to complete a Transferor Affidavit.

SC residential tax breaks are “two ships in the night”

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ships passing night.jpg

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness”  – Longfellow

Tax cases can be complicated, but this one seems relatively simple. The South Carolina Court of Appeals held in late December that the homestead exemption and the primary residence (4%) classification are two entirely separate matters*.

The taxpayer, Frank Mead, turned sixty-five in 2004 and received the homestead exemption from 2005 to 2010 on his home located in beautiful Hilton Head Island. In 2011, he had a brilliant idea and rented his home for 138 days during which he traveled part of the time and stayed in a rental apartment the remainder of the time.

The Beaufort County Tax Assessor didn’t approve of Mr. Mead’s brilliant idea. She revoked the homestead exemption for 2011 on the theory that he no longer qualified because he rented his home for more than fourteen days.  Mr. Mead believed the fourteen-day limitation applied only to the primary residence (4%) classification and appealed to the Beaufort County Tax Equalization Board.

He lost in that forum but then appealed to the Administrative Law Court. The ALC found for Mr. Mead and determined that the homestead exemption and the primary residence classification are “two ships in the night” with different requirements. The Tax Assessor appealed to the Court of Appeals.  The issue was whether the homestead exemption under §12-37-250 of the South Carolina Code is available only to property that also qualifies for the preferential residential assessment ration set out in §12-43-220(c).

Section 12-37-250 provides for a homestead exemption for a person sixty-five or older when that person has been a resident of South Carolina for at least one year. Section 12-43-220(c) provides for a special property tax assessment ratio of 4% (as opposed to the normal 6%) for owner occupied legal residences.

To make the matter a little more complicated, but more advantageous to the taxpayer, the assessment ratio statute further provides that the owner-occupant of a legal residence is not disqualified from receiving the 4% classification if the requirements of Internal Revenue Code §280A(f)[2] as defined in section 12-6-40 (A), meaning the property may be rented for less than fifteen days.

The Court of Appeals noted that nothing in the homestead exemption statute makes reference to the primary residence classification statute and that the 14-day rule applies only to the four percent assessment ratio. Simple, right? Not quite so simple: interestingly, the Department of Revenue had taken the same position in a 1997 memorandum that the Tax Assessor in this case took, but withdrew that memorandum two years later.

For now, the rules are separate and distinct, and the taxpayer wins!

The SC-NC Boundary Legislation Passed!

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SC law “clarifying” the boundary will be effective at the beginning of the year.

The long awaited and much debated legislation defining the boundary line between The Palmetto State and the Tar Heel State was signed by Governor Nikki Haley on June 10.  The effective date of the law is January 1, 2017.

The purpose of the law is “clarifying the original location of the boundary” with North Carolina along Horry, Dillon, Marlboro, Chesterfield, Lancaster, York, Cherokee and Spartanburg Counties and providing additional information about the plats describing the location along Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties.  In other words, our legislature doesn’t believe the law establishes a new boundary line.

welcome to SC 2

As expected, much of the legislation deals with tax issues. The legislative intent is set out specifically, and includes the thought that no business or residence owner should be liable for back taxes to South Carolina nor refunds from South Carolina as a result of a change from one state to the other. And the Department of Revenue is given the authority to compromise taxes in cases that result in taxation in both states.

Several issues are of particular interest to dirt lawyers. For example, no deed recording fees or county filing fees may be charged for deeds recorded as a result of the boundary clarification.

On the effective date of the legislation, Registers of Deeds (and Clerks of Court in those affected counties that do not have ROD offices) will be required to file a Notice of State Boundary Clarification for each affected piece of property. The form is described specifically in the legislation and requires the legal description, tax map number, derivation (if available), the names of the owners of record and the “muniments of title”, a defined term meaning “documents of record setting forth a legal or equitable real property interest or incorporeal hereditament in affected lands of an owner”.

I’m a dirt lawyer of more years than I like to divulge, but I admit I had to investigate the meaning of that word. The learned source, Wikipedia, indicates a muniment of title is the written evidence a landowner can use to defend title, such as a deed, will, judgment or death certificate.

Apparently, lawyers in states with marketable title legislation may be familiar with this term. South Carolinians have neither the benefit of tidy legislation to correct our title problems nor the knowledge and widespread use of this nifty term, until now.  We will all need to use and pronounce the word, muniment, next year. A North Carolina colleague asked me where the RODs and Clerks of Court will obtain the information to supply the  muniments of title. My best guess is that somebody is going to have to do a lot of title work!

(Note to Professor Spitz:  I apologize if you taught me that term in law school. It’s been a long, long time!)

Also of interest to dirt lawyers are provisions relating to foreclosures. A foreclosing attorney will have to file and serve the summons and complaint along with the aforesaid Notice of Boundary Clarification and an attorneys’ certification “that title to the subject real property has been searched in the affected counties and the affected jurisdictions” on all parties having interest in the real property pursuant to the muniments of title.  Whew! The foreclosure can then proceed after thirty days. I’m not sure how all that will be sorted out. I assume South Carolina foreclosure lawyers will be hiring counterparts across the state line to assist in these title examinations.

How will dirt lawyers and title insurance companies deal with sales and mortgages for properties that change states?  I think we are going to take these issues on a case-by-case basis and work together to sort out the various issues that are surely to arise. Be sure to involve your title insurance underwriter in these decisions rather than going out on a limb alone!