If you’re following my sales tax posts here at the SalesTaxSupport.com "Massachusetts Sales Tax" blog, perhaps you've noticed the many comments and questions from readers asking for practical guidance to general Massachusetts sales tax questions. In responding to readers, I often include a direct link to the Massachusetts DOR’s website – specifically to a sales tax regulation, technical information release, or other relevant information.
As a Massachusetts based State & Local Tax (SALT) consultant, I spend a lot time navigating around the Massachusetts DOR website, reading the Massachusetts regulations, rulings, and other guidance. And so, I’ve had the idea for quite a while of writing a blog post to help my readers learn more about the DOR's website and how and where to find helpful and relevant information – a sort of “primer” on the Massachusetts DOR website as it pertains to sales tax guidance. I also thought it would be helpful to explain the different types of technical administrative guidance (some of the best information on the site) to readers and the significance of this guidance.
MA DOR Home Page: If you’re a newbie to the Massachusetts sales tax, I’ll first direct you to the Massachusetts DOR home page. You can link to the home page here or copy the URL into your browser: https://www.mass.gov/dor/ At the top of the DOR home page, you’ll see the grey webpage tabs (just under the DOR logo) that you can click to navigate to other webpages based on whether you are looking for information for Individual or Business Taxpayers, for Tax Professionals, or for Forms or e-Services. Later in my post, I’ll share some of my favorite places on the DOR website, but because it’s important to share where you can find the DOR's technical guidance, here's where I'll focus first.
MA DOR Legal Library: I have to admit that my absolute favorite section of the Massachusetts DOR website is the Legal Library (spoken like a true tax nerd). Even though a direct link to the Legal Library isn’t available on the home page (but should be, in my humble opinion), you can easily find the Legal Library by navigating from the DOR’s home page to other webpages on the site. How do you find this jewel of information? From the DOR home page, you can navigate to the Legal Library by first clicking on the “Businesses” tab at the top of the DOR home page. Once you’re at the DOR Businesses webpage, look for the "Quick Links" section in the lower right hand side of the webpage and there you’ll find a link to the Legal Library. You can also navigate to the Legal Library by choosing the “Tax Professionals” tab at the top of the DOR home page. Here again, when you land on the Tax Professionals webpage, you’ll find a “Quick Links” section on the bottom right hand side of the Tax Professionals webpage with a quick link to the Legal Library.
At the Legal Library, you’ll find what I refer to collectively as “administrative guidance” - guidance issued in published form by our state government agency responsible for “administering” the Massachusetts tax laws (the DOR). Thus, the administrative guidance you’ll find in the Legal Library are the sources of information that reflect the DOR’s interpretation of the Massachusetts sales tax laws.
- One of the first sources of administrative guidance I’ll point you to are the Massachusetts Sales & Use Tax Regulations. The Regulations are the DOR’s interpretation of the statutory provisions governing Massachusetts taxation. Keep in mind that the actual tax laws (the statutes) are enacted by the Massachusetts legislature. But it’s the DOR that is charged with the responsibility of interpreting the tax laws and drafting and issuing Regulations. Often you’ll find that the actual statute may be brief or vauge. The Regulations expand upon the specific statute the regulation relates to with a more in-depth explanation and often with extensive examples. Actually, when doing my own research, I’m more likely to head straight to the Massachusetts Regulations, even before looking at the statute itself.
- Technical Information Releases (TIRs) and Department of Revenue Directives (DOR Directive) are also two of my “go-to” sources of guidance. TIRs and DOR Directives are similar in that they both state the DOR's official position or policy. TIRs inform taxpayers and tax practitioners of the DOR's response to changes in federal or state tax laws or to court decisions interpreting those laws. TIRs also state the official position of the DOR, have the status of precedent in the disposition of cases unless revoked or modified, and may be relied upon by taxpayers in situations where the facts, circumstances and issues presented are substantially similar to those in the TIR. DOR Directives focus more on the DOR’s policy, practice or interpretation, provide details or supplementary information, clarify ambiguities, resolve inconsistencies or explain and elaborate on issues. Like TIRs, DOR Directives state the official policy of the DOR and have status of precedent unless revoked or modified. DOR Directives may also be relied upon by taxpayers in situations where the facts, circumstances and issues presented are substantially similar to those in the Directive.
- One final source of administrative guidance I want to point out is the extensive library of Private Letter Rulings (LRs). An LR is an advisory ruling issued by the Commissioner of Revenue in response to letters from individual taxpayers on specific issues relating to the interpretation or application of the Massachusetts tax laws. Here’s one really important thing to note about LRs – because they are the DOR’s response to a specific taxpayer based on that specific taxpayer’s facts and circumstances, they are not binding on the DOR and generally cannot be relied upon by other taxpayers in an audit or legal proceedings. That is, LRs do not have the same weight as TIRs and DOR Directives. Incidentally, I spend a lot of time reviewing and reading LRs when conducting tax research. Why? Because they provide an indication of the DOR’s position, often contain extensive facts describing the taxpayer’s scenario and also because they often cite specific provisions, regulations, administrative guidance and relevant court decisions within the DOR’s often extensive response. You can obtain a lot of great information from reading through LRs - just keep in mind that they are "indicative" of the DOR's position but binding only for the taxpayer for whom they were written.
By the way, the DOR has LRs on its site that go all the way back to 1979 (TIR and DOR Directives on the site go back to the late 70s and mid 80s). If you think it isn’t a big deal to be able to find and read every Massachusetts LR that has been published for the last several decades, trust me – it is! As a multi-state SALT consultant, I also spend a lot of visiting the websites of other state taxing agencies – and it is insanely frustrating when you come across a state that does not publish its letter rulings. There's a real push for "tax transparency" when it comes to states making their documents public - and with good reason, taxpayers and practitioners should be able to readily obtain rulings and other guidance issued by the taxing agencies.
Finally, you may have noticed, I’ve added my own links to this blog post so that readers can easily click on my links as I explain how to navigate your way through the DOR website. However, because I want visitors and readers of the Massachusetts State Sales Tax blog to find this post insanely helpful, as well as a valuable tool on how to find the most relevant sales tax information at the Massachusetts DOR website, I’ve added my own direct “Quick Links” to my favorite webpages on the DOR’s website below. By the way, if Massachusetts sales tax is an important topic to you, I’m going to suggest adding your own “Direct Link” to this Massachusetts blog post by making a "favorite" on your browser.
Sylvia’s Favorite Stops at the Massachusetts DOR website:
- Massachusetts DOR Legal Library
- Massachusetts Sales Tax Regulations.
- Within the regulations, the Massachusetts Computer Industry Services and Products Regulation (I’ll be writing a post in the future specifically on the Massachusetts sales tax treatment of software and cloud computer and will really delve into this Regulation in that post)
- Massachusetts DOR Technical Information Releases (TIRs)
- Massachusetts DOR Directives
- Massachusetts DOR Administrative Procedures
- Massachusetts DOR database of Private Letter Rulings
- Massachusetts Sales & Use Tax Forms (the various Massachusetts Exemption Certificates, e.g., resale, exempt use, can be found at this webpage)
- The Massachusetts Guide to Sales & Use Tax (a good, general, non-technical guide on Massachusetts sales & use tax)
- The Massachusetts Guide to Trustee Taxes – Sales & Use
- Massachusetts DOR guidelines for its general Voluntary Disclosure program for unregistered taxpayers.
- Massachusetts e-Services webpage (here you’ll find information and links to the MassTaxConnect portal for registration and filing/payments) Also see my prior post “MassTaxConnect - 5 Things Massachusetts Sales Tax Filers Should Know” for more on the MassTaxConnect system.
- Massachusetts DOR “Whom Do I Call” webpage for direct numbers to specific DOR departments.
One final note, if you're looking for the Massachusetts sales tax laws – you won’t find the actual tax laws posted at the Massachusetts DOR website. To see and read the Massachusetts sales tax laws, you’ll need to head to the Massachusetts Legislature’s website: https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleIX/Chapter64H
So what are your thoughts? Do you have any favorite "stops" at the Massachusetts DOR website that you'd like to share? If so, please let me know by posting a comment below. Or what about your thoughts on other state tax agency websites you've visited. Feel free to share those too.
Other recent “Massachusetts (MA)” posts by Sylvia F. Dion, CPA:
- The Massachusetts DOR Website - A Great (Sales) Tax Resource
- MassTaxConnect - 5 Things Massachusetts Sales Tax Filers Should Know
- Massachusetts Sales Tax Holiday Is Consumer Perk – But Retailer Pain
- Massachusetts Exemption Certificates for Drop-Ship: A Catch-22
- Massachusetts Sales Tax: Five Things You Should Know