Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA July 2, 2020 19 min read

Technical Issues in California Sales Tax Audits

California Department of Tax and Fee Administration Audits — Short Tests and Sampling: Part One

The CDTFA uses short tests to come up with a decision as to whether to proceed or to accept as correct that item being tested. In fact, the CDTFA encourages its auditors to use short tests when a taxpayer’s records are in order. However, at any time, a short test can be expanded into full examination.

A short test may be defined as the examination of any record, supplemental data, original detail, etc. for any purpose. A short test audit may be a combination of several short tests. 

A short test might be, for example, the review of an income tax return to see if the markup over cost is acceptable for the type of business, a spot check of sales invoices for proper tax accrual, etc.

The nature of the short test places a great deal of emphasis on the individual auditor’s judgment. The auditor evaluates the results of a short test and comes to a decision as to what to do. 

In certain businesses where the number of transactions are large (e.g., department stores), the CDTFA auditor may design a controlled test for a short period. An example might be the operations of one day or less.

This test, even though formal in nature versus spot checking, would be construed as a short test because this forms the basis of a decision to stop testing or to proceed. If the auditor decides to proceed, this original test might be the nucleus of an expanded audit program.

Size of test period. Auditors use their experience and exercise judgment in determining the size of test periods. The following principles should be considered in selecting a test period:

  • The size should be adequate to insure reasonable accuracy
  • The auditing time required should not be excessive in relation to the problem

There are two broad categories of testing used in sales and use tax auditing – statistical sampling and block sampling. The second category of testing is used when statistical sampling cannot be used. 

The CDTFA looks for a number of conditions to employ tests – most important of which is consistency of units sold, consistency in business characteristics in the test period and so on.

For example, it may be that what is being tested is a hodgepodge of various deductions. In this case, the base would be all the deductions recorded and claimed. Verification is then made by the auditor in accordance with the taxpayer’s method of computing the claimed deductions.

California Department of Tax and Fee Administration Audits – Short Tests and Sampling: Part Two

In general, when auditing a business with good internal controls, and a good accounting system, the test period may be a relatively small portion of the total audit period. However, in an audit of a business with little or no internal controls, the test period most likely will cover a larger proportion of the audit period. 

If records are available, the periods selected for testing will be spread over the entire audit period so that samples can be taken of all years and all seasons of the year. The size of each test period, in addition to the above considerations, will depend on the number of documents required to be examined. 

Usually, the test periods consist of complete months or quarters, but periods of less than one month may be selected by the auditor if daily or weekly controls can be established.

CDTFA statisticians have established that several short tests over the audit period are superior to one equivalent long period. For example, a test of three scattered months throughout the audit period will give better results than a one-quarter test. 

The CDTFA checks for errors and statistically applies them to the general number of transactions. If errors are irregular and non-recurring, the CDTFA will eliminate them from the test and be excluded from the calculations of a percentage of error. For example, any sale that is rare or out-of-the-ordinary, can be considered, for classification, as nonrecurring.

An audit made on a test basis where there is no supporting detail (i.e., no detailed journals) is conducted similarly to a detailed audit where there is no support for the claimed amount. However, the taxpayer will be requested to prepare supporting schedules for the test periods only.

The proposed measure resulting from the projection of the sample results will be compared and analyzed for reasonableness by looking at the taxpayer’s business as a whole. If the results appear unreasonable, the auditor will discuss the situation with the taxpayer. The auditor and the taxpayer will need to come to some kind of agreement as to whether or not the results are representative of the business for the time period in question. 

The auditor will, whenever possible, discuss the use of test periods with the taxpayer, include the taxpayer in the development or selection of a sampling plan, and endeavor to obtain a concurrence. In fact, very often during the audit, the auditor will discuss and consult with the taxpayer about the audit’s procedures and techniques, to ascertain necessary information. 

If, during the course of a sample, a document cannot be located, normal auditing procedure requires the auditor to ascertain the reason for the missing or incomplete documents. When the investigation fails to reveal any specific reason, the auditor may first determine whether there is any acceptable alternative evidence. 

The auditor and taxpayer will work together to obtain missing documents or the auditor can ask for additional documents that may indirectly provide information sought by the auditor.

The auditor will develop a sampling plan to outline methods of testing, the timeframe and so on. Prior to determining the type of testing to be used in a given audit situation, the auditor must make a thorough examination of the business operations for the period under audit. 

This examination includes a review of source documents, changes in business activity, and changes in accounting procedures and key personnel. A plan is usually completed with assistance and input from the taxpayer. The information and methods documented in this plan are not binding on either the taxpayer or CDTFA staff. 

The sampling plan can and will be continually evaluated (and changed, if necessary) based upon information obtained during the audit process. However, if any deviation from this sampling plan is required, the deviations are fully explained and discussed with the taxpayer.

CDTFA staff must first try to obtain from the taxpayer any data or documents which should have been retained in accordance with Revenue and Taxation Code section 7053. However, if all other available avenues of information have been exhausted and approval of the district administrator has been obtained, CDTFA staff may request the information directly from the taxpayer’s financial institution either by obtaining the taxpayer’s authorization or by issuing a subpoena duces tecum. 

Procedures for requesting records directly from a financial institution must comply with the California Right to Financial Privacy Act.

California Department of Tax and Fee Administration Audits – Accounting Techniques

An audit made on a taxable measure basis generally places emphasis on the verification or accumulation of taxable differences as compared to an audit performed on a total sales and claimed deduction basis using individual lead schedules. The auditor will verify that all sources of revenue and deductions have been examined.

Taxable measure basis may be preferable for the CDTFA in a number of cases. For example, when records are available, but verification of total gross receipts and deductions is not necessary because taxable transactions are few in number and the taxpayer has reported taxable measure only based on a listing of these transactions, capitalizing tax reimbursement, or by markup of taxable purchases.

Another circumstance is where the total gross reported is not an important factor in determining taxable measure. For example, this is the case with service enterprises, contractors, public utilities, manufacturers and wholesalers (applicable for sales tax purposes).

Other cases include circumstances when direct audit of records will not yield results for the CDTFA and indirect audit is necessary, or where the taxpayer has prepared returns on a taxable sales basis and audit time can be conserved by conforming to this method. 

For example, where a grocer has used a method other than the “grocers method” to arrive at the taxable measure or the overall markup, as reflected by recorded gross sales, is unfavorable, the audit might be conducted in a more efficient manner through a verification of taxable sales.

The CDTFA makes a comparison between recorded and reported total gross an important procedure, for it may disclose that sales, gross receipts, or fuel used, for one month or one department or branch of a business was not included in the reported totals. 

Through this comparison the CDTFA may discover classes of transactions or use erroneously considered nontaxable by the taxpayer.

If the taxpayer has reported on the basis of lists or tapes of taxable items, the auditor will verify the correctness of these lists by:

  • Verifying that the lists include all items regarded as taxable by the taxpayer
  • Determining if there were any items subject to tax not so regarded by the taxpayer.

If the taxpayer reported on a basis of the tax actually charged to the customer and has credited that amount, the clerical accuracy of the posting to that account, as well as the computations made in converting the tax accrued to taxable is measured by the following tests:

  • The computations of tax charged on customer’s invoices.
  • The posting of tax charges to the sales journal or other record where such charges are summarized.
  • The clerical accuracy of the footings and the posting of the tax charges to the tax accrual account.
  • The mathematics of the conversion of tax charged to taxable measure reported

For example, debits to the accrual account will be scrutinized by the CDTFA to determine that these charges represent proper deductions from the amount of tax accrued. In addition, the auditor will determine the effect on the accrual account of allowable bad debts, tax-paid purchases resold and other adjustments which legitimately reduce the taxpayer’s accrued tax liability. A reconciliation of the tax accrual account and the tax reported will be made by the CDTFA auditor.

Consideration also will be given to sales and use taxes collected for and paid to other states. Deductions claimed or netted will be tested by the auditor to ensure they are allowable.

CDTFA Prior Audit Percentages of Error (PAPE) Program and Cut-Off Techniques

The Prior Audit Percentages of Error (PAPE) Program involves the use, under certain circumstances, of a percentage of error developed in a prior audit for the sales or accounts payable portion of a current audit. It can be a valuable tool in streamlining the audit process and is designed to reduce the time it takes to complete an audit and minimize the burden on taxpayers.

When planning the audit, CDTFA supervisors and auditors evaluate whether the taxpayer is eligible for the use of a PAPE. This evaluation is conducted whether or not the taxpayer has already requested the use of a PAPE. If the taxpayer is eligible for the use of a PAPE, the auditor discusses the PAPE with the taxpayer as soon as possible rather than wait for the taxpayer to request it. 

To qualify for the PAPE, the taxpayer must have at least one prior audit and must meet the number of conditions. One of the conditions is consistency of business operations during prior audit and current audit. Minor changes are generally ignored. It is important to remember that the use of a PAPE is limited to the current audit period as a PAPE cannot be used in two subsequent audits.

The CDTFA also uses cut-off techniques. “Cut-Off” is that point in the audit program where the auditor has accumulated sufficient data to support a reasonable conclusion or opinion based on acceptable audit standards. It might be defined as when to stop testing or examining data.

 It could be used for whole examination or for a specific task or test and the auditor has discretion in this case. When a prospective cut-off point is reached, a decision is made by the auditor whether to accept the test results, alter the audit approach, or discontinue the audit. 

Basically, an important consideration here is given to existence of errors. It is up to the auditor to decide if errors exist, whether to keep testing or disregard errors. The auditor can decide to accept test results and the cut-off point is reached then. The auditor considers materiality of error, frequency of error, and other factors.

The principle of whole dollar auditing (i.e., dropping cents) is used by the CDTFA as a time-saving technique. In whole-dollar auditing, cents are eliminated at the earliest practical stage in an accounting sequence and only whole-dollar amounts are recorded thereafter. In this case, any $.49 cents and below are rounded down, and $.50 cents and more are rounded up. 

A whole dollar audit is not used when the taxpayer objects (the auditor may still try to convince the taxpayer by explaining this method), when computing markup form shelf orders or when precise data is necessary.

During an audit, the auditor will examine multiple records to find undisclosed and unreported taxable transactions. The general ledger accounts will be examined for debits and credits. The auditor may examine general journal entries, correspondence, contracts, sales or revenue invoices, cash receipts records, accounts receivable ledger, partners’ drawing accounts and employees’ advance accounts, purchase journal for sales at cost or returned merchandise, including inventory accounts. 

The auditor will try to reconcile sales or revenue reported to general ledger. In cases of missing or flawed records, the CDTFA auditor will do gross profit and net worth analysis. Auditor will review tax returns as well.

Overall, the CDTFA auditor will make a significant effort to ensure a good relationship with the taxpayer and will try to make the audit convenient for the taxpayer, as long as the taxpayer does not create unnecessary obstacles for an audit. 

Nevertheless, it is advisable for the taxpayer to cooperate with the auditor to ensure a smooth and efficient auditing process. It is also really helpful to ensure that all books and records are always kept in order, even if the taxpayer does not expect an audit.

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