What is Sales Tax Compliance [Tips, Issues & Requirements to Know]

If you run small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), you will often find yourself trying to avoid sales tax compliance by spending so much time trying to figure out sales tax from different angles

Sales tax compliance is an important process in every business operation, as it directly impacts the financial health and legal standing of the business, and failure to comply can result in unexpected audits, severe penalties, and even reputational damage for business owners.

Even though staying compliant is challenging,  achieving sales tax compliance can be straightforward when the burden of compliance is diverted and outsourced to expert who deal in managing sales tax or, at best, by exploring the use of reliable automated sales tax management software

In this article, our goal is to provide a clear and informative guide on sales tax compliance for SMBs, particularly e-commerce businesses. We aim to demystify the complexities, outline best practices, and equip business owners with the knowledge and tools they need to ensure they meet their sales tax obligations effectively and efficiently and remain sales tax compliant. 

Whether you’re new to the world of sales tax or seeking to improve your compliance processes, this guide will be your comprehensive resource for navigating this critical aspect of your business.

What is Sales Tax Compliance

Before we get into what sales tax compliance is, let’s take a quick recap on what sales tax itself is. A sales tax is a consumption tax imposed by state and local governments on the sale of most goods and some services. When a consumer purchases a taxable item, the seller collects the tax, which is then remitted to the appropriate tax authority. It is typically calculated as a percentage of the purchase price and is collected by the seller at the point of sale.

On the other hand, sales tax compliance refers to the process of adhering to the tax regulations and obligations set forth by state and local governments. It entails correctly collecting, reporting, and remitting sales tax on taxable transactions.

For small and medium-sized businesses, sales tax compliance is crucial to ensuring they are contributing their fair share to the community while avoiding legal consequences and financial penalties.

How is Sales Tax Determined

Sales Tax is determined by the following:

1. Nature of goods and services

2. Location of the seller and buyer

3. Sales Tax Nexus and Jurisdiction

1. Nature of Goods and Services 

Typically, not all goods and services are subject to tax, so sales tax isn’t applied uniformly across all goods and services. While some goods and services are subject to sales in some states and counties, other states exempt some products and services from being taxed. Oftentimes, tangible goods are the ones subject to tax, while certain services or digital products are exempt.

Thus, it’s essential for businesses to identify what is considered taxable in the jurisdictions where they operate. 

Read list Taxable and non-taxable Taxable Items in the US in 2023 

2. Location of the Buyer and Seller

Another critical factor in sales tax determination is whether the jurisdiction follows an origin-based, destination-based or nexus tax system. Origin-based taxation applies the sales tax rate based on the seller’s location, while destination-based taxation considers the buyer’s location. Let’s take a quick look into how each of the factors influence sales tax 

i. Nexus and Seller’s Location

The seller’s location, often referred to as “physical presence,” establishes the first layer of sales tax obligation. If a business has a physical presence in a state, such as a brick-and-mortar store, warehouse, or office, it establishes a nexus in that state; however, a nexus can also be established beyond physical presence, and this is often referred to as an economic nexus. This nexus is what triggers the requirement for the seller to collect and remit sales tax on transactions within the jurisdiction where it operates or sells.

ii. Destination-Based Tax

In destination-based tax systems, the sales tax is determined based on the location of the buyer. This means that the rate applied is that of the buyer’s jurisdiction, regardless of where the seller is located. As a business owner, you must be aware of your buyer’s destination and the tax system operating in that region, as it requires you to calculate and collect the sales tax rate applicable to the buyer’s shipping address.

iii. Origin-Based Tax

An origin-based tax system is one where the sales tax rate is determined by the location of the seller. In this scenario, the rate applied is the one associated with the seller’s location instead of the buyer’s. Thus, if your business operates in multiple states or jurisdictions, you need to understand whether you are subject to origin-based or destination-based taxation to ensure accurate calculations, collection, and filing.

3. Nexus Threshold and Jurisdiction

One of the fundamental aspects of sales tax determination is establishing a nexus, and a nexus refers to a business’s connection or presence in a particular state. A business nexus is an important factor in the sales tax space because it determines whether a business is obligated to collect and remit sales tax in a specific jurisdiction. 

A business may be connected to a jurisdiction by its physical presence, economic nexus, or click-through nexus, and the impact of this nexus on businesses is that it compels you to register for sales tax, collect tax on sales to customers in that state, and file periodic tax returns.

i. What is an Economic Nexus and Click-Through Nexus

Economic nexus refers to the connection a business has with a state based on its economic activity, even if it lacks a physical presence in that state. Traditionally, businesses were only required to collect and remit sales tax in states where they had a physical presence, such as a storefront or office. However, economic nexus laws have evolved, especially with the 2018 Supreme Court case South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc.

In the aftermath of the Wayfair decision, states gained the authority to impose sales tax obligations on businesses with a substantial economic presence in the state. The threshold for economic nexus typically involves a certain level of sales revenue, transaction volume, or a combination of both within a specific time frame. Each state sets its own economic nexus thresholds, and businesses exceeding these thresholds are required to register for and collect sales tax in that state.

For example, if an e-commerce business exceeds a certain amount of sales or transactions in a particular state, it may trigger an economic nexus, necessitating compliance with that state’s sales tax regulations.

Note: The specifics of economic nexus thresholds vary by state, and businesses should refer to each state’s regulations for accurate information

A click-through nexus, on the other hand, is a concept that involves the relationship between an online retailer and an in-state business that refers customers to the online retailer’s website. This referral often occurs through a clickable link or advertisement, hence the term “click-through.”

In states with click-through nexus laws, if an in-state business, such as an affiliate marketer, drives customers to an online retailer and the customers make a purchase, the online retailer may establish a tax obligation in that state. The click-through nexus laws are designed to capture out-of-state retailers who benefit from in-state businesses’ efforts to drive sales.

Like economic nexus, the criteria for click-through nexus vary by state, and businesses need to be aware of the specific rules in each jurisdiction where they operate. Compliance may involve registering for and collecting sales tax on transactions that result from click-through referrals.

Note: As with economic nexus, the details of click-through nexus laws are subject to change, and businesses should refer to current state regulations for accurate and up-to-date information.

Common Sales Tax Compliance Errors & Mistakes to Avoid

a. Not Registering in the Right States: Businesses often fail to register for sales tax in states where they have a sales tax obligation. This can occur due to a lack of awareness or misunderstanding of state-specific regulations.

b. Incorrect Tax Collection: Mistakes in calculating and collecting the correct sales tax rate or failing to collect sales tax when required can lead to non-compliance issues.

c. Missed Deadlines: Missing sales tax filing deadlines or submitting incomplete or inaccurate returns can result in penalties and interest charges.

d. Inadequate Record-Keeping: Poor record-keeping practices can lead to difficulties in proving tax compliance during an audit. Missing or disorganized documentation is a common problem.

e. Not Tracking Nexus: Many businesses underestimate the concept of nexus, which refers to the connection that obligates them to collect and remit sales tax in a particular state. Failing to monitor changes in nexus can lead to non-compliance.

f. Ignoring Exemptions: Not properly identifying and applying sales tax exemptions, which can vary by state, results in overcharging customers or underreporting taxable sales.

g. Manual Processes: Relying on manual methods for calculating, collecting, and remitting sales tax can introduce errors and inefficiencies.

Potential Consequences of Sales Tax Non-Compliance

i. Penalties and Interest: Non-compliance can lead to fines, penalties, and interest charges, which can significantly impact a business’s finances.

ii. Audits: Tax authorities may audit non-compliant businesses, which can be time-consuming, stressful, and costly. Audits can result in additional fines and taxes owed.

iii. Reputation Damage: Non-compliance can tarnish a business’s reputation, leading to a loss of customer trust and goodwill.

iv. Legal Issues: In extreme cases, continued non-compliance may lead to legal actions, such as lawsuits or court orders to pay outstanding taxes.

Tips to Avoid Sales Tax Compliance Mistakes

a. Stay Informed: Regularly monitor changes in sales tax laws and regulations, especially in states where you do business. Engage with industry associations and seek legal or tax advice when needed.

b. Use Sales Tax Software: Invest in sales tax compliance software to automate calculations, collection, and reporting. This reduces the risk of errors and streamlines the compliance process.

c. Accurate Record-Keeping: Maintain comprehensive records of all sales transactions, exemptions, and tax calculations. Good record-keeping is crucial for both compliance and audit defense.

d. Regular Reconciliation: Periodically reconcile your sales tax records to ensure accuracy. This helps identify and correct errors before they become major issues.

e. Comprehensive Training: Ensure that employees involved in sales tax compliance are well-trained and understand their responsibilities. Provide ongoing training to stay updated.

f. Consult with Experts: Consider consulting with tax professionals or experts who specialize in sales tax. They can help you navigate complex compliance issues and provide guidance.

g. Regular Audits: Conduct internal sales tax audits to identify and address potential issues before they escalate. Self-auditing can prevent surprises during official audits.

Sales Tax Registration: When and How to Register for Sales Tax Permit in the US

Registering for sales tax is a crucial step for businesses to comply with tax regulations. The process varies from state to state in the United States, but here’s a general overview of how to register for sales tax:

Step 1: Determine Your Nexus

Before registering, determine in which state you have a “nexus.” Nexus refers to a connection or presence in a state that obligates you to collect and remit sales tax. Common factors that create a nexus include physical presence (e.g., an office, store, or warehouse) or economic activity (e.g., significant sales in a state).

Step 2: Obtain Required Information

Gather the necessary information and documentation, which typically includes your business’s legal name, business structure (e.g., LLC, corporation), federal employer identification number (FEIN), and personal identification information for business owners.

Step 3: Visit the State’s Tax Agency Website

Each state has its own tax agency responsible for collecting sales tax. Visit the official website of the tax agency in the state(s) where you have a nexus. For example, in California, you’d visit the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration’s (CDTFA) website.

Step 4: Access the Online Registration Portal

Most states provide an online registration portal for businesses. Look for a link or section related to “Sales Tax” or “Register a New Business.” Click on it to start the registration process.

Step 5: Complete the Registration Form

You will be guided through an online registration form. You’ll need to enter the information you gathered in Step 2, including your legal business name, FEIN, and other details. The form may also request information about your business activities and sales channels.

Step 6: Select Your Sales Tax Permit Type

Some states may require you to select a permit type, such as a regular sales tax permit or a resale permit, if you plan to buy products for resale. The options available can vary by state.

Step 7: Verify Information and Submit

Carefully review the information you’ve entered for accuracy. Once you’re sure everything is correct, submit your application. Some states may charge a fee for the permit, while others issue it for free.

Step 8: Await Confirmation

After submitting your application, you’ll receive a confirmation email or a physical permit in the mail, depending on the state’s procedures. This confirmation serves as proof of your sales tax registration.

Step 9: Keep Up with Registration Updates

Sales tax regulations can change too frequently, and you may need to update your registration information if your business circumstances change. Stay informed about changes to tax laws, rates, and reporting requirements in the states where you are registered.

Sales Tax Collection: When and How to Collect Sales Tax from Customers

i. Online Sales: When selling products online, it’s crucial to collect sales tax from customers based on the shipping address. E-commerce platforms often have built-in features for automatically calculating and adding the correct sales tax amount.

ii. In-Store Sales: In physical retail locations, the sales tax is usually added to the purchase price when the transaction takes place. Businesses should train their employees to ensure that sales tax is collected accurately.

iii. Tax-Exempt Customers: Some customers may be exempt from paying sales tax, such as nonprofit organizations or resellers. In such cases, businesses should obtain and keep documentation that proves the customer’s tax-exempt status. Exemption certificates may be required.

iv. Point-of-Sale Systems: Utilize point-of-sale (POS) systems or e-commerce platforms that can handle sales tax calculations. These systems can simplify the collection process and ensure accuracy.

v. Regular Reporting and Remittance: After collecting sales tax from customers, businesses are responsible for reporting and remitting the collected tax to the appropriate tax authorities. The frequency of reporting and remittance varies by state, but it’s typically monthly, quarterly, or annually.

How to File Sales Tax Returns: Step by Step Process

Filing sales tax returns involves a series of steps to ensure accurate reporting and compliance:

a. Gather Records: Collect all relevant sales and purchase records, including invoices, receipts, and sales data. It’s essential to have a clear overview of all your transactions during the filing period.

b. Calculate Tax Owed: Calculate the total amount of sales tax collected from customers during the reporting period. Deduct any allowable exemptions and determine the net amount due.

c. Complete the Sales Tax Return Form: Different states may have varying forms for sales tax returns. Ensure that you use the correct form for your location. Many states now offer online filing options, which can streamline the process.

d. Report Sales by Jurisdiction: In some cases, you may need to report sales by city, county, or district within your state. Make sure to allocate your sales accurately to the respective jurisdictions, if applicable.

e. File Electronically: Whenever possible, file your sales tax returns electronically. Electronic filing is often quicker and can help reduce errors in manual data entry.

f. Payment: Once you’ve completed the form and verified the amount owed, submit the payment to the tax authority. Most states allow electronic payments as well.

g. Keep Records: Retain copies of your filed returns, supporting documentation, and proof of payment. This is crucial for future audits or references.

Sales Tax Filing Frequency and Deadlines

Sales tax filing frequencies and due dates can vary by state. Here are the most common options:

i. Monthly Filing: Some businesses are required to file monthly. These typically have higher sales volumes or may be subject to more complex sales tax regulations. The due date is often around the 20th of the following month.

ii. Quarterly Filing: Many small to medium-sized businesses fall into the quarterly category. These returns are filed four times a year, usually due at the end of the month following the end of the quarter.

iii. Semi-Annual or Bi-Annual Filing: In some states, businesses with relatively low sales volumes may be allowed to file semi-annually or bi-annually. Due dates can vary, but it’s typically around the end of the month following the filing period.

iv. Annual Filing: Businesses with very low sales volumes may qualify for annual filing. The due date is usually around the end of the first month following the end of the fiscal year.

To determine your specific filing frequency and due dates, check with your state’s tax authority or refer to their official website. It’s crucial to stay organized and adhere to the correct filing schedule to avoid penalties and interest.

Tips for Timely and Accurately Filing Sales

a. Maintain Accurate Records: Keep meticulous records of all sales and purchases. Use accounting software or dedicated sales tax compliance software to track transactions automatically.

b. Automate the Process: Implement sales tax automation tools that calculate and collect sales tax for you. This helps minimize errors and streamline the filing process.

c. Reminders: Use calendar reminders to ensure you don’t miss filing deadlines. Most states offer online tools to help with compliance, which may also provide notifications.

d. Double-Check Your Math: Errors in calculations are a common issue. Always double-check your numbers to ensure accuracy.

e. Review and Reconcile: Regularly review your sales tax collected against the amounts reported on your returns. Reconcile any discrepancies promptly.

g. Consult with a Professional: If you’re unsure about the sales tax regulations in your state or are dealing with complex situations, consider consulting with a tax professional or accountant.

h. Stay Informed: Sales tax regulations can change, and new exemptions or rules may apply. Stay informed about changes that may affect your business.

Sales Tax Audit Requirement: What to Retain for Audits

Sales Invoices: Keep copies of all sales invoices and receipts issued to customers, showing the amount of sales tax collected, if applicable.

Purchase Invoices: Retain records of all purchase invoices and receipts for expenses related to your business. These documents should detail the sales tax you paid on purchases.

Bank Statements: Maintain bank statements for your business accounts, including records of deposits, withdrawals, and transactions.

Accounting Records: Keep ledgers, journals, and general accounting records that summarize your financial transactions. This includes sales, expenses, and any sales tax collected or paid.

Tax Returns: Hold onto copies of filed sales tax returns, income tax returns, and any other relevant tax filings.

Sales Tax Exemption Certificates: If you have customers who are exempt from paying sales tax, keep records of their exemption certificates.

Receipts for Sales Tax Payments: Store receipts or confirmations for sales tax payments made to tax authorities. These documents prove that you’ve remitted the collected sales tax.

Contracts and Agreements: Keep copies of contracts, leases, and agreements related to your business, as they may be relevant to an audit.

Records of Asset Purchases: Document any major asset purchases, including equipment, vehicles, or property, along with the associated sales tax.

Correspondence: Save any correspondence with tax authorities, whether it’s related to audits, assessments, or inquiries.

Sales Tax Audit Process

Notification: Typically, the first step in a sales tax audit is receiving a notification from the taxing authority. This notification will include details about the audit scope, the audit period, and a request for specific documents and records.

Opening Conference: After receiving the notification, you’ll have an opening conference with the auditor. This is an opportunity to discuss the audit’s objectives, the documents and records required, and to ask any initial questions you may have.

Document Review: The auditor will review your financial records, sales invoices, purchase receipts, and other relevant documents to verify the accuracy of your reported sales tax.

On-Site Inspection: In some cases, the auditor may conduct an on-site visit to your business location. During this visit, they may inspect your facilities and inventory to ensure compliance.

Interviews: The auditor may interview key personnel within your organization to gather additional information and clarify any discrepancies.

Audit Findings: Once the audit is complete, the auditor will provide you with a summary of their findings. This will include any discrepancies or areas where they believe you have underreported or overreported sales tax.

How to Prepare for a Sales Tax Audit

Gather Documents: Start by assembling all the requested documents, such as financial statements, sales and purchase records, tax returns, and any other relevant paperwork. Ensure that your records are organized and easily accessible.

Review Your Records: Conduct an internal review of your records to identify any potential discrepancies or issues. This proactive step can help you address issues before the audit.

Documentation Retention: Maintain thorough records even after filing your sales tax returns. Adequate documentation is essential for defending your position during an audit.

Engage a Professional: Consider hiring a tax professional or consultant who specializes in sales tax compliance. They can help you navigate the audit process and ensure you are well prepared.

How to Handle and Resolve Audit Issues

Audit Report Review: Carefully review the audit report provided by the auditor. Pay close attention to the discrepancies and any penalties or interest charges assessed.

Negotiation: You may have the opportunity to discuss discrepancies with the auditor and negotiate the audit findings. Be prepared to provide additional documentation or explanations to support your position.

Dispute Resolution: If you believe the auditor’s findings are incorrect, you can dispute the audit results through the taxing authority’s established dispute resolution process. This often involves submitting additional documentation and working with the tax authority to reach a resolution.

Appeal Process: If your dispute is not resolved at the initial level, you may have the option to appeal the decision. This usually involves a formal hearing or review by a higher-level authority within the taxing agency.

Payment Arrangements: If you are found to owe additional taxes, penalties, or interest, work with the taxing authority to establish a payment plan if necessary. Timely payments can help minimize the financial impact of the audit.

Preventive Measures: After resolving audit issues, take steps to prevent future compliance problems. Implement better record-keeping practices, consider using sales tax compliance software, and stay informed about changes in sales tax laws.

A sales tax audit can be a challenging process, but thorough preparation and a professional approach can help you navigate it successfully. If you are unsure about any aspect of the audit, consulting with a tax professional is highly advisable to ensure compliance and minimize potential financial repercussions.

Explore Our Sales Tax Compliance Software Today

Sales tax compliance is not just a legal obligation but a fundamental part of responsible business management. Non-compliance can lead to hefty fines and damage your business’s reputation. It’s vital to protect your business by ensuring accurate, on-time tax filings and by keeping impeccable records.

To simplify sales tax compliance, consider exploring our SaaS solution for sales tax management. Our software is designed to ease the burden of compliance, helping you accurately calculate, collect, and file sales tax. By using our solution, you can reduce the risk of costly errors and focus on growing your business with peace of mind. Learn more about how our software can benefit your SMB by visiting our website.

How Atomix Tax Software Simplifies the Compliance Process

Automated Calculations: Atomix Tax employs cutting-edge technology to automatically calculate the precise amount of sales tax due on each transaction. This eliminates the need for manual calculations and reduces the risk of errors.

Accurate Rate Determination: Our software stays up-to-date with ever-changing tax rates and rules across different states and localities. This ensures that your business consistently charges the correct sales tax, mitigating the risk of non-compliance.

Multi-State Support: For businesses operating in multiple states, Atomix Tax provides seamless support for cross-border transactions. This feature ensures that you comply with the varied tax laws of each jurisdiction.

Effortless Filing: Atomix Tax offers an integrated e-filing solution, making the process of submitting your sales tax returns a breeze. This not only saves time but also minimizes the potential for filing errors.

Audit Readiness: Our software assists in maintaining comprehensive records and documentation, ensuring that your business is well-prepared in the event of a sales tax audit.

Real-Time Updates: Atomix Tax continuously updates its database with the latest sales tax regulations. You can trust that your compliance practices are in line with current laws.

How to Choose the Best Sales Tax Software

Sales tax compliance software is a powerful tool designed to streamline and simplify the often complex and burdensome process of adhering to sales tax regulations. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), managing sales tax compliance can be a daunting task, as it involves navigating a web of constantly changing rules and regulations across different states and localities. This is where sales tax compliance software comes to the rescue.

When considering a sales tax compliance tool, here are some key features to keep in mind:

Accuracy: Look for software that can accurately calculate sales tax based on the most up-to-date rates and rules. Precision is crucial in avoiding compliance issues.

Multi-State Capabilities: If your business operates across multiple states, ensure the software can handle complex multi-jurisdictional tax requirements.

Integration: The software should seamlessly integrate with your existing accounting or e-commerce systems for a smoother workflow.

Filing and Reporting: Choose a tool that offers a simplified process for filing and reporting sales tax returns, reducing the risk of errors and saving time.

Audit Trails: Comprehensive record-keeping capabilities are essential for maintaining organized records and documentation, which is invaluable during an audit.

Customer Support: Ensure the software provider offers reliable customer support and resources to assist you in times of need.

Atomix Tax encompasses all of these features and more, making it an ideal solution for businesses seeking a comprehensive sales tax compliance tool. With Atomix Tax, you can focus on growing your business while leaving the complexities of sales tax compliance to a trusted and reliable partner.

Key Takeaways from the Article

Understanding Sales Tax: Sales tax is a crucial part of operating a business in the United States, with varying rates and rules by state and locality. It’s essential to grasp the concept and obligations.

Registration and Collection: SMBs must register for sales tax in each state where they have a presence (nexus) and collect tax from customers. The process may differ by state, so it’s important to stay informed.

Filing and Record-Keeping: Filing sales tax returns accurately and on time is crucial. Maintain detailed records, including invoices and transaction data, to support your filings.

Sales Tax Compliance Software: Consider using sales tax compliance software to streamline the process and reduce the risk of errors. Look for features that suit your business needs.

Common Compliance Mistakes: Be aware of common compliance errors, such as miscalculations, late filings, and incomplete records. These mistakes can lead to penalties and audits.

Sales Tax Audits: In the event of an audit, it’s essential to be prepared and organized. Follow proper procedures for resolving audit issues.

Ongoing Compliance Challenges: Sales tax laws are subject to change, making it important to stay up-to-date with evolving regulations and leverage resources to maintain compliance.