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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Welcome Back, Now Bend Over!

For all the years I spent trying to get out of Massachusetts, I was actually very happy to be returning.  I like the culture, I like the diversity, I even like the climate (yes, really!).  My new neighbors have been very nice, with several stopping by the house to introduce themselves, sometimes bringing bagels or brownies.  Old friends have contacted me to reconnect, and all in all we've felt very welcomed.

Until my husband went to register the cars at the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles, for any non-Massholes reading this).

We expected that there were going to be hefty registration fees, and while we certainly didn't like it, we were OK with it.  What we didn't expect, however, was the sales tax scam being run by the state with the full cooperation of licensed auto dealerships.

Let me back up.  In July of 2007, when Tom and I were legal residents of New Hampshire, we bought a car at a licensed dealership in Acton, MA.  Why did we go to Massachusetts to buy a car?  Because we were looking for a very specific type of car (Volvo station wagon of a certain vintage with a manual transmission), and we would go any reasonable distance to get it.  A dealership in Acton had it, so we bought it.

Now, usually you pay sales tax on a purchase at the point of sale.  Massachusetts changed the rules for vehicles, most likely because of all the Massholes who were going up to sales tax-free New Hampshire and buying their cars there.  So in Massachusetts, you pay sales tax for your car when you go to the RMV to register it.  Well, we lived in New Hampshire, so we registered it there, where we paid all applicable taxes and fees.  No, we didn't pay a sales tax, but we did pay a vehicle license tax which is based on the car's purchase price when it was new (even if you bought it used, which we did).  Not an insignificant amount of money.

Fast forward four years.  Since purchasing the car, we've moved to Iowa, New York, and now Massachusetts.  Each time we properly registered all of our cars, and we properly retitled them in each state.  My husband went to the RMV to do the whole song and dance again in Massachusetts (by now an old hand at it), and was told that he can't register the cars without a bill of sale for each vehicle.  Massachusetts didn't dispute that we legally own the cars (our valid New York titles are sufficient proof of that); they just wanted to ensure that we acquired them legally and paid all applicable taxes.  How conscientious of them.  So after much digging, we found the bills of sale from my car (bought four years ago) and one of Tom's cars (bought seven years ago), both obtained from licensed Massachusetts dealers and legally registered in New Hampshire at the time of purchase.  Our 'spare' car was purchased from a private party in New Jersey six years ago, and Tom had to provide that person's name and address.

Having to find that paperwork was bad enough, but here's where it got ugly.

The Mass RMV accepted the car purchased from a private party in New Jersey six years ago as being on the up and up, and just collected the regular registration fees that we were expecting to pay.  But the cars purchased in Massachusetts were another matter.  Buried deep in Massachusetts law is the following: "If a nonresident of Massachusetts purchases a motor vehicle in Massachusetts and takes title to and/or possession of the vehicle in Massachusetts, the sale is subject to the Massachusetts sales/use tax irrespective of whether the nonresident intends to use the motor vehicle within or outside Massachusetts."  (Chapter 64H)  How is this to be done if the purchaser is not registering the vehicle in Massachusetts?  Letter Ruling 77-13 states: "No dealer can make delivery of a motor vehicle to an out-of-state purchaser who takes delivery of the vehicle in Massachusetts without first receiving evidence that the required sales tax has been paid.  This payment is made on Form ST-7R at either the registry or any state tax office and the dealer must retain evidence of payment in case of an audit."  In other words, the dealerships were legally required to fill out this form and inform us of our tax liability, and then NOT release the titles to us until we could prove that we'd paid the required tax.  Neither of them did that.  They just took our cash and gave us the titles, with no hint that there was anything more we needed to do.

So when Tom went to register the cars and produced bills of sale from Massachusetts dealers, he was informed of his tax liability, along with the nice detail that we were now also on the hook for penalties and interest, plus we would be assessed at the current 6.25% rate, not the 5% sales tax rate that was in effect at the time of purchase.  The penalties and interest more than doubled what we owed for my station wagon.  Did the RMV care that the dealerships were negligent in their legal responsibilities?  Not their problem, mon.  Furthermore, the woman Tom dealt with at the RMV went on a bit of a rant about how this happens all the time, and how few if any dealerships comply with this requirement, leaving people like us screwed for hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than they should have paid.  (You know it's bad when an RMV employee is doing your complaining for you!)  The biggest victims, according to the woman at the RMV, are retirees who split their time between Massachusetts and Florida.

This isn't a new requirement.  That letter ruling I referenced dates back to 1977, and it hasn't been superseded.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn't bother enforcing this law because it's a cash cow for them.  Enforcement would cut their revenue drastically.  So instead they stick it to people who would  be happy to comply with the laws if the people responsible for informing us of them actually did what they were supposed to do.  After all, if ignorance of the law is no defense, and violation of the law results in higher revenues, of course they want to keep people as ignorant as possible!

Massachusetts does have a reciprocal relationship with most states.  If this whole thing had happened this way except we'd lived in New York (which also collects sales tax at the time of registration) instead of New Hampshire, then Massachusetts would have credited us with the amount of tax we'd paid in New York and only charged us the difference (plus penalties and interest on that difference), if any.  But they don't recognize the vehicle license tax we paid in New Hampshire, because technically it's not a sales tax, so we're considered delinquent on the whole amount.

If we had known about this at the time we purchased my station wagon, we would have paid the $50 or $100 to have the dealership deliver the car to us in New Hampshire, which, according to Massachusetts General Laws, would have exempted us from the tax liability entirely.  But we weren't informed, and the dealership illegally released the title to us when we picked up the car in Acton, so now the state gets hundreds of extra dollars.

The obvious thing would be for us to go after the dealerships themselves, if the state won't.  Unfortunately, both dealerships have since closed, even though at least one of them is currently operating in a new location under a new name (same owner).  But it's legally a different entity, and therefore not responsible for the actions of its former existence.  How convenient.

Yes, this has turned into more of a rant than I'd intended, but it's really frustrating to get hit with a four-figure registration fee that should have been half of that when you've tried to do everything right.  It's not like the state caught up with us after we spent years flouting the law; the law was concealed from us by the dealerships' illegal actions, and by the failure of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to enforce their own 30+ year old law.

Massachusetts, I realize you're having trouble balancing your books, along with virtually every other state in the union (except North Dakota, I think).  But please don't attempt to solve your fiscal woes by screwing over your citizens.  Taxes are bad enough; partnering with auto dealerships to stick consumers with exorbitant penalties is just obscene.


  1. And then they wonder why people are leaving the state in droves. I guess my question then is if you never moved back to Massachusetts & tried to register those cars would MA ever be able to collect? Would some kind of 6 figure number be mailed to your kids in 60 years when you die? And furthermore, what if you stayed in NH and sold the vehicles to an individual then bought new in NH THEN moved to MA. Would they have ever known? What a racket they've got going there! I hope you got it all sorted out & don't have any more surprise Mass taxes!

  2. Jenn, I don't even want to THINK about those scenarios you mentioned! We've got it sorted out now, and once our bank account stops grieving, we'll be fine.