Tax Tip: Write Off Losses Caused by Natural Disasters
Understand IRS rules to get the maximum tax relief for property losses resulting from floods, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes and more.
Whether you retire to the coast or stay put in a city, you could end up in the path of a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Dorian. If you suffer property damage from such a disaster, the tax law can offer some help.
Personal casualty losses of individuals are deductible to the extent that they are attributable to a federally declared disaster area. This encompasses areas devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes, major flooding, blizzards, tornadoes, wildfires and other events. Before 2018, the deduction for personal casualty losses was broader. For example, under previous law, you were able to write off losses if your house was severely damaged by a fallen tree limb during a thunderstorm.
If your house, car or belongings are damaged or destroyed as a result of a federally declared disaster, you may qualify for a tax break to offset losses that aren’t covered by insurance when you file a claim.
Generally, only taxpayers who itemize deductions can take a tax write-off for damage to personal property. And there are two important offsets that apply. First, you must reduce the amount of the loss by $100. Then, you can deduct the balance only to the extent that it exceeds 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI).
Let’s say your AGI is $100,000 and you have $30,000 in unreimbursed losses from damage to your house caused by Dorian. You first subtract $100 from the loss. Then you subtract $10,000 (10% of your AGI) from the $29,900 balance. The remaining $19,900 is the amount you can deduct on Schedule A of Form 1040.
To compute and report casualty losses, you need to fill out IRS Form 4684. You must enter the FEMA disaster declaration number on that form. Find a list of federally declared disasters and the declaration numbers at fema.gov/disasters.
The IRS offers multiple safe harbors to make it easier for qualifying taxpayers to figure the loss to their damaged home or personal belongings. For example, one method lets a homeowner with losses of $20,000 or less take the lesser of two repair estimates to determine the decrease in the home’s value. Homeowners can also use the estimated loss in reports prepared by an insurer or a licensed contractor’s invoice. See Revenue Procedure 2018-08 for more safe harbors.
The tax law allows you to take a personal disaster loss on your return for either the year of the disaster or the year before the disaster. For example, if your home was damaged from Hurricane Dorian, you can take the loss on your 2019 return or on your 2018 return. If you decide to claim it for 2018 and you have already filed your 2018 return, you can amend it by filing Form 1040X. For this purpose, you must file your amended prior-year return no later than six months after the due date for filing your current-year return (without extensions) for the year in which the loss took place. So, for Dorian losses, you would need to file an amended 2018 return by October 15, 2020.
Note that shortly after a major federally declared disaster, the IRS will often offer administrative relief, such as granting additional time to file tax returns or pay taxes. You can also call 866-562-5227, IRS’s dedicated phone line for disaster-related questions.
Prepare Before Disaster Strikes
Think about disaster preparedness before a disaster happens. Scan important papers into electronic format, and keep backup copies. Safeguard tax records in a protected place. Take pictures or videos of the contents of your home or business premises, and store images off-site. Use IRS Publication 584 to help compile a list of your assets. (For more tips, read “Retirees, Be Prepared for a Disaster”.)
If you lost prior-year tax returns in a hurricane, fire or other disaster, use the free “Get Transcript” tool at IRS.gov to view and immediately print a summary of key tax information. Or get a tax transcript by calling the IRS disaster phone line noted above or mail in IRS Form 4506-T. To request a copy of your actual return, send in Form 4506 by mail.