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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Joy Taylor, Editor
| December 8, 2017
Okay, admit it: As you've struggled with your tax return, trying to come up with some extra deductions to pump up your refund or reduce what you owe, you've taken a few flights of fancy. "Can I claim a deduction for all those blood donations at the Red Cross?" Nope. "How about a charitable contribution for all the time I donate to the church?" No, again. "Can I count the wedding gift for my boss's daughter as an employee business expense?" Come on!
On the other hand, your fellow taxpayers have successfully claimed write-offs for many things that most of us wouldn't even imagine, ranging from cat food to a casualty loss for a vehicle totaled by a drunk driver.
Here are 17 of our favorites.
A Breaking Bad wannabe purchased a building that had been used by a religious sect and turned it into a drug lab. Unfortunately for him, a hot plate ignited his volatile chemicals, and the resulting fire gutted the building, rendering it unusable. He claimed he was entitled to a $9,000 casualty loss. Even though he was involved in an illegal activity and acted negligently, the Tax Court allowed him to claim the write-off.
With exonerations on the rise, thanks in part to advances in DNA testing that have helped the wrongfully incarcerated win their freedom, Congress has taken a step to make amends as well. Compensation that these victims receive is now fully exempt from federal taxation. The change came with the tax-law changes Congress put into place at the end of 2015.
An accomplished bass player and music professor laid a major beatdown on the IRS. He traveled to jazz rehearsals and performances to keep his skills sharp so he could play with other well-known musicians. The IRS said he could not deduct his travel costs because he enjoyed playing the bass and performing wasn’t part of his teaching duties. Nevertheless, the Tax Court allowed him the write-off because he translated what he saw and heard in the music scene and taught it to his students.
This deduction is both obscure and listed right there on Form 1040. If you are a "performing artist," you have the ability to deduct business expenses related to your work, even if you don't itemize—it's one of the rare "above the line" tax deductions.
But before you dance an extra little jig, note the considerable restraints on this deduction: You have to have at least two employers (not gigs—actual W-2 income), and each has to pay you at least $200. Your expenses have to be at least 10% of what you make as a performer. But here's the real kicker: Your adjusted gross income can't be more than $16,000, even if you're married.
Why so low? The value was set in 1986 and has never been adjusted for inflation.
A couple who owned a junkyard were allowed to write off the cost of cat food they set out to attract wild cats. The feral felines did more than just eat. They also took care of snakes and rats on the property, making the place safer for customers. When the case reached the Tax Court, IRS lawyers conceded that the cost was deductible.
A woman used her own money to care for feral cats that she fostered in her home for a charity that specialized in the neutering of wild cats. She spent more than $12,000 of her own money paying for vet bills, food and other items.
The Tax Court ruled that she can claim a charitable deduction for her expenses, but limited her write-off because she didn’t meet the substantiation rules, failing to procure a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity each time she spent $250 or more on the charity’s behest. With the proper documentation, she could have deducted all the costs she incurred for the organization.
A pro bodybuilder used body oil to make his muscles glisten in the lights during his competitions. The Tax Court ruled that he could deduct the cost of the oil as a business expense. Lest it be seen as a softie, though, the Court nixed deductions for buffalo meat and special vitamin supplements to enhance strength and muscle development.
An insurance company sued two doctors for insurance fraud. The doctors admitted liability and agreed to reimburse the insurer for the losses it sustained, and the insurance company agreed to release a claim for restitution in a pending criminal case. The IRS ruled that the repayments are deductible provided that the doctors originally included the money in their incomes in prior years. But to demonstrate that crime doesn't fully pay, the IRS said the repaid funds are a miscellaneous itemized deduction that's allowed only to the extent it exceeds 2% of the doctors' adjusted gross incomes.
A reveler drank too much at a party and had the good sense to arrange a ride home. A few hours later, after slowing down in his revelry, he thought he was okay to drive. Unfortunately, the vehicle he was operating slid off the road and rolled over. The cops arrested him for drunken driving because his blood alcohol reading was just over the legal limit. His insurer refused to pay for the damage to his car because of the arrest. Yet the Tax Court let him deduct the cost of the damage as casualty loss because it said that he had tried to act reasonably. Had he driven straight home from the party with a high blood alcohol level and had the accident, the court declared that it would have nixed his deduction because his actions would have constituted gross negligence.
A self-employed consultant who worked in her condominium sued her neighbors and the condo association, alleging that her work was disrupted by noise from faulty construction and barking dogs. Also, in connection with the litigation, she was charged with a criminal misdemeanor. She deducted $26,000 of attorney fees associated with both of these proceedings as business expenses.
The IRS said the legal fees were personal costs. But the Tax Court OK’d half of the write-off because she used 50% of the condo for business, and the IRS failed to prove that the noise didn’t adversely affect her business use of the residence.
In a novel promotion, a service-station owner offered his customers free beer with a fill-up. Not surprisingly, his station’s gasoline sales increased significantly. Proving that alcohol and gasoline do mix—for tax purposes—the Tax Court allowed the owner to deduct the cost of the beer as a business expense.
A lawyer faced a challenge from the IRS as she sought to deduct losses during the six years she spent making a documentary film on the musical group Up With People. The IRS claimed the long series of annual losses indicated that her filmmaking activities were a hobby, asserting the project was essentially a high-cost home movie because her husband once was a member of that group.
Furthermore, at one point during hearings, the judge reviewing the case suggested that documentary filmmaking is by nature not-for-profit—a musing that so alarmed the film industry that a number of well-known filmmakers filed friend-of-court rulings to say, in essence, that you can make money with documentaries.
Ultimately, the court ruled in her favor, allowing her deduction of six-figure losses. It noted that she acted in a businesslike manner, hiring staff such as a bookkeeper, buying insurance, consulting experts, changing the story line to make the film more marketable, blogging about it, and taking it on tour to movie festivals.
Fees paid to a sitter to enable a parent to get out of the house and do volunteer work for a charity are deductible as charitable contributions even though the money didn't go directly to the charity, according to the Tax Court. The court expressly rejected a contrary IRS revenue ruling.
A sole proprietor who regularly met clients in his home office was allowed to deduct part of the costs of landscaping the property, on the grounds that it was a part of the home being used for business, according to the Tax Court. The court also allowed a deduction for part of the costs of lawn care and driveway repairs.
SEE ALSO: Get a Tax Deduction for All That Snow Shoveling
A taxpayer with emphysema put in a pool after his doctor told him to develop an exercise regime. He swam in it twice a day and improved his breathing capacity. Turns out he swam in the pool more than his family did. The Tax Court allowed him to deduct the cost of the pool (to the extent the cost exceeded the amount it added to the value of the property) as a medical expense because its primary purpose was for medical care. Also, the cost of heating the pool, pool chemicals and a proportionate part of insuring the pool area are treated as medical expenses.
SEE ALSO: A Tax Break for Going Gluten-Free?
A father owned a profitable real estate development business. His teenage son
was a local celebrity for his successful motocross racing, so the father decided to have the company
become a sponsor for his son’s racing activity. Over a two-year period, the firm paid $160,000
for motorcycles, equipment and other costs. The funding ceased when the son turned pro.
The Tax Court said that most of the $160,000 was a deductible business expense
because the firm obtained new business connections, favorable construction financing deals
and other similar benefits from its sponsorship.
Rather than drive five to seven hours to check on their rental condo or be tied to the only daily commercial flight available, a couple bought their own plane. The Tax Court allowed them to deduct their condo-related trips on the aircraft, including the cost of fuel and depreciation for the portion of time used for business-related purposes, even though these costs increased their overall rental loss on the condo.
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