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Unclaimed Property Hunger Games: States Seek Supreme Court Review in ‘Official Check’ Dispute

Background

As detailed in our blog last month, MoneyGram Payment Systems, Inc. (MoneyGram) is stuck in between a rock and a hard place as states continue to duel with Delaware over the proper classification of (and priority rules applicable to) MoneyGram’s escheat liability for uncashed “official checks.”  The dispute hinges on whether the official checks are properly classified as third-party bank checks (as Delaware directed MoneyGram to remit them as) or are more similar to “money orders” (as alleged by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and numerous other states participating in a recent audit of the official checks by third-party auditor TSG). If classified as third-party bank checks, the official checks would be subject to the federal common law priority rules set forth in Texas v. New Jersey, 379 U.S. 674 (1965) and escheat to MoneyGram’s state of incorporation (Delaware) since the company’s books and records do not indicate the apparent owner’s last known address under the first priority rule. However, if the official checks are classified as more akin to money orders under the federal Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act of 1974 (Act), as determined by TSG and demanded by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the other states, they would be subject to the special statutory priority rules enacted by Congress in response the Supreme Court of the United States’ Pennsylvania v. New York decision and escheat to the state where they were purchased. See 12 U.S.C. § 2503(1) (providing that where any sum is payable on a money order on which a business association is directly liable, the state in which the money order was purchased shall be entitled exclusively to escheat or take custody of the sum payable on such instrument).

In addition to the suit filed by the Pennsylvania Treasury Department seeking more than $10 million from Delaware covered in our prior blog, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue recently filed a similar complaint in federal district court in Wisconsin, alleging Delaware owes the state in excess of $13 million. Other states participating in the TSG audit (such as Arkansas, Colorado and Texas) also recently made demands to MoneyGram and Delaware.

It is interesting to note that in 2015, Minnesota (MoneyGram’s former state of incorporation) turned over in excess of $200,000 to Pennsylvania upon its demand for amounts previously remitted to Minnesota for MoneyGram official checks. Apparently not only do the states in which the transaction occurred disagree with but even a former state of incorporation took the majority path.   (more…)




U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne Decision Calls New York’s Statutory Resident Scheme into Question

On May 18, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Comptroller of the Treasury of Maryland v. Wynne. In short, the Court, in a five-to-four decision written by Justice Alito, handed the taxpayer a victory by holding that the county income tax portion of Maryland’s personal income tax scheme violated the dormant U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Specifically, the Court concluded that the county income tax imposed under Maryland law failed the internal consistency test under the dormant Commerce Clause, because it is imposed on both residents and non-residents with Maryland residents not getting a credit against that Maryland local tax for income taxes paid to other jurisdictions (residents are given a credit against the Maryland state income tax for taxes paid to other jurisdictions).

The Supreme Court emphatically held (as emphatically as the Court can be in a five-to-four decision) that the dormant Commerce Clause’s internal consistency test applies to individual income taxes. The Court’s holding does create a perilous situation for any state or local income taxes that either do not provide a credit for taxes paid to other jurisdictions or limit the scope of such a credit in some way.

The internal consistency test—one of the methods used by the Supreme Court to examine whether a state tax imposition discriminates against interstate commerce in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause—starts by assuming that every state has the same tax structure as the state with the tax at issue. If that hypothetical scenario places interstate commerce at a disadvantage compared to intrastate commerce by imposing a risk of multiple taxation, then the tax fails the internal consistency test and is unconstitutional.

Although the Wynne decision does not address the validity of other taxes beyond the Maryland county personal income tax, the decision does create significant doubt as to the validity of certain other state and local taxes such as the New York State personal income tax in the way it defines “resident.” New York State imposes its income tax on residents on all of their income and on non-residents on their income earned in the state; this is similar to the Maryland county income tax at issue in Wynne.

“Resident” is defined as either a domiciliary of New York or a person who is not a domiciliary of New York but has a permanent place of abode in New York and spends more than 183 days in New York during the tax year. N.Y. Tax Law § 605. (New York City has a comparable definition of resident.) N.Y.C. Administrative Code § 11-1705. Thus a person may be taxed as a statutory resident solely because they maintain living quarters in the state and spend more than 183 days in the state, even if those days have absolutely nothing to do with the living quarters; this category of non-domiciliary resident is commonly referred to a “statutory resident.” As such, under New York’s tax scheme, a person can be a resident of two states—where domiciled and where a statutory resident—and thus [...]

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