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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Joke: What's the Difference Between a Divorce and a Tatoo?

This blog post combines two posts from the SBM Blog and is the original content of the State Bar of Michigan.

As Michigan lawyers go about the work of convincing our state legislators that a tax on legal services would be a fundamental and costly mistake, we face the same response again and again:  "if we exempt one service we have to exempt them all."  In Georgia, policymakers are also gearing up for a tax on services, and a recent white paper from Georgia's venerable Tax Foundation asks: "Can anyone really keep a straight face while justifying a tax exemption for legal services, tattoos, haircuts, car repair,health club memberships and other common services?"  Well, we can.  In fact, we wonder how serious policymakers can keep a straight face equating legal services with personal grooming and adornment services.Bottom line: government shouldn't tax behavior that is good for society. We're all better off when people get the legal advice they need to secure justice or comply with the law.  Tatoos, not so much.

The original SBM Blog post, above, referenced a related post on the same subject, which is reproduced here for our readers convenient reference:

Unfair, Unwieldy, Unwise, Unethical, and Unconstitutional

The prospect of a Michigan tax on services that extends beyond the 26 services already taxed to include legal services is a growing threat, with a group of business leaders actively pushing the idea, legislation already introduced, and the Governor endorsing a services tax. The State Bar has successfully lobbied in the past against taxing legal services, arguing that a tax on legal services is unfair, unwieldy, unethical, unconstitutional, and, ultimately, unsuccessful. The constitutional problems with a tax on legal services are magnified when legal services to businesses are excluded, as is the case with several of the current proposals. See HB 55275528, and 5529. If you haven’t expressed concern about a tax on legal services to your legislator, now’s the time.  Here’s how to connect.  Here’s the State Bar’s position.

Here's a quick rundown of the arguments.  A tax on legal services is...

Unfair – Most legal services are rendered in circumstances of crisis, stress, or misfortune. People who seek legal assistance in cases involving child support payments, child custody, divorce, death, domestic abuse, end-of-life decisions, or bankruptcy seek them out of necessity, not choice. For this reason, a tax on legal services is aptly labeled a  "misery tax".  

Unwieldy – Determining what fees and services would be subject to the tax and which records would or could be subject to audit would be an administrative nightmare. Among other reasons, attorneys often don't receive payment promptly from their clients, making it a potential administrative burden to reconcile payment with the tax obligation.  Administrative complications were one reason why the only two large states that have adopted such a tax – Florida and Massachusetts – repealed it shortly after it took effect. 
Unethical – Collection of a sales tax on legal services could compromise client confidentiality, imposing the state’s tax collection apparatus into the attorney-client relationship. Law firms do pay taxes under the Michigan Business Tax. 

Unwise – Individuals and businesses seek legal advice to ensure compliance with the law.  Such behavior should be encouraged, not taxed. Further, the tax could be counter-productive, causing clients to seek legal services outside Michigan for intellectual property, federal tax, estate planning, legal service, and encouraging law firms providing such services to relocate outside Michigan, or perform such services at satellite offices. Like medical services, legal services are not discretionary. Taxing legal services is taxing justice. 
Unconstitutional – In addition to constitutional concerns about attorney-client privilege and the taxation of criminal defense, the proposal to exempt one class of clients (business) from taxation while imposing the tax on another class (individuals) raises serious constitutional issues.

Unsuccessful - Two states, Florida and Massachusetts, enacted sales taxes on services but repealed the measures when they proved to be administratively difficult and unpopular.  In the three small states that are said to have a tax on legal services, two also tax physician services and the thrid reports that the tax is not enforced because it is so difficult to calculate and collect.

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Blogger Timothy P. Flynn, Esq. said...

UPDATE: State Rep Alma Wheeler Smith (D Salem) has introduced a counter-bill which would exempt lawyers from the service tax. The SBM has lobbied strongly against the proposed service tax on lawyer's fees, asserting such fees are no more discretionary than a doctor's fees. The SBM further asserts that if doctors fees are exempt, consumers of legal services should get the same tax break.

February 24, 2010 at 5:59 AM 
Anonymous Auto Accident Attorney Houston, Texas said...

Great post! Two thumbs up for it!

June 4, 2010 at 6:36 AM 

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