Common Tax Myths – Travel, Meals and Entertainment

There are many things that are “common knowledge” about income taxes. Unfortunately, some of them are simply wrong. This short series of blog posts will address some of them. This post examines some myths about travel, meals and entertainment deductions.

Go on and spend the money, it is deductible.

This common refrain covers a lot of territory. It typically only affects business owners, although taxpayers with large amounts of unreimbursed employee business expenses also succumb to this. (Recent changes to tax laws have affected the rules regarding unreimbursed business expenses.) Not all expenses are deductible. You can refer to Publication 463 Travel, Entertainment, Gift, and Car Expenses for specifics.  There is a table listing types of expenses that are deductible if they are incurred for a bona fide business purpose near the end of this post. Keep in mind that even when expenses are deductible, they are still expenses.

Talk about business so your lunch or dinner can be a business expense.

This is an example of an expense that is not deductible. Simply talking about business does not make something a business meeting. While meals and entertainment can be deductible, there must be a bona fide business reason.

In plain terms, expenses for business should be ordinary and necessary. The IRS defines these terms in Publication 535 Business Expenses.

To be deductible, a business expense must be both ordinary and necessary. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your industry. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your trade or business. An expense does not have to be indispensable to be considered necessary.

Even a casual reading of this definition makes it clear that meeting a client or prospective client for dinner may be a deductible expense. So too might be a lunch meeting with a coworker or employee if the purpose is directly related to business. However, it is not appropriate to deduct the expense for routine meals. You may be able to expense regular meals for employees in some circumstances. Deductibility may also depend on the nature of your business. You should consult with your tax advisor for the details.

Two common myths have to do with the cost of meals.

  1. Go on and go to the fancy place, its deductible.
  2. Don’t try to deduct very expensive meals.

As usual, the truth is something else. Pub 463 addresses the topic of lavish or extravagant meals.

You can’t deduct expenses for meals that are lavish or extravagant. An expense isn’t considered lavish or extravagant if it is reasonable based on the facts and circumstances. Expenses won’t be disallowed merely because they are more than a fixed dollar amount or take place at deluxe restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, or resorts.

In other words, cost by itself will not affect whether you can deduct an expense. Remember the definition of ordinary and necessary described earlier. Keep in mind that even though the expense may be deductible, meal and entertainment expenses are limited to 50 percent of the actual expense or standard meal allowance amount.

If you go on a business trip, you can stay a few extra days and write off the expense. If you take along a companion, that is deductible also.

Bad idea.  IRS Publication 535 Business Expenses explains,

Generally, you cannot deduct personal, living, or family expenses. However, if you have an expense for something that is used partly for business and partly for personal purposes, divide the total cost between the business and personal parts. You can deduct the business part.

Using this as a guide, you would be able to deduct the business portion of your trip. However, expenses for extra days or for companions are personal expenses and are not deductible as business expenses.

Another variation on this theme is:

If your small business has annual meetings, hold them in places that are also resort or vacation destinations, so you can write off the trip.

This may be  partly true depending on the circumstances, but like many myths, it starts with truth and then distorts into falsehood. The expenses associated with your businesses meetings are deductible if they have a business purpose. Once you go beyond the bona fide business purpose, then the expenses are no longer deductible. Be very careful about trying to deduct that wintertime company meeting at a beach resort. The details about what are likely to be acceptable may depend on the nature of your business. You should consult with your tax professional.

The table below lists the types of travel expenses that you can deduct. Remember to keep receipts and documentation.

Travel Expenses You Can Deduct

IF you have expenses for... THEN you can deduct the cost of...
transportationtravel by airplane, train, bus, or car between your home and your business destination. If you were provided with a free ticket or you are riding free as a result of a frequent traveler or similar program, your cost is zero. If you travel by ship, see Luxury Water Travel and Cruise Ships , under Conventions, earlier, for additional rules and limits.
taxi, commuter bus, and airport limousinefares for these and other types of transportation that take you between:
The airport or station and your hotel; and
The hotel and the work location of your customers or clients, your business meeting place, or your temporary work location.
baggage and shippingsending baggage and sample or display material between your regular and temporary work locations.
caroperating and maintaining your car when traveling away from home on business. You can deduct actual expenses or the standard mileage rate, as well as business-related tolls and parking. If you rent a car while away from home on business, you can deduct only the business-use portion of the expenses.
lodging and mealsyour lodging and meals if your business trip is overnight or long enough that you need to stop for sleep or rest to properly perform your duties. Meals include amounts spent for food, beverages, taxes, and related tips. See Meals , later, for additional rules and limits.
cleaningdry cleaning and laundry.
telephonebusiness calls while on your business trip. This includes business communication by fax machine or other communication devices.
tipstips you pay for any expenses in this chart.
otherother similar ordinary and necessary expenses related to your business travel. These expenses might include transportation to or from a business meal, public stenographer's fees, computer rental fees, and operating and maintaining a house trailer.
Excerpted from Publication 463 Travel, Entertainment, Gift, and Car Expenses

Don’t become a victim of tax myths. “Everybody does it” is not a good defense if your deductions are questioned. If you have travel or meals and entertainment expenses for your business, be sure to deduct them. However, make sure that they are for a legitimate business purpose and that you can substantiate them.

Common Tax Myths – Home Office Deductions

The Home Office Deduction is another area that is confusing to taxpayers. According to the IRS

If you use part of your home for business, you may be able to deduct expenses for the business use of your home. These expenses may include mortgage interest, insurance, utilities, repairs, and depreciation.

However, there are two popular myths surrounding business use of a home.

  • 1.       Never take the home office deduction, it will trigger an audit.
  • 2.      If you do any work out of your home, you can take a deduction.

As with many things that are “common knowledge,” these two myths are almost true. Unfortunately, almost true is just enough to get you into trouble. It is always best to rely on authoritative resources. Tax professionals such as CPAs, tax attorneys, and enrolled agents refer to IRS publications and they keep abreast or IRS rulings and court decisions. They also take continuing education. This is much more dependable than relying on, “a friend who knows someone who . . .”

Let’s look at the first myth. The IRS does not publicize its audit selection criteria. However, there is no evidence to suggest that simply claiming a home office will increase the chance that you will be audited. Many taxpayers operate businesses out of home offices. The tax code specifically allows deductions for business use of a home, and the IRS provides instructions in Publication 535 Business Expenses and in Publication 587 Business Use of Your Home.

If there is an increased risk of audit, then it would have to do with improperly claiming a home office deduction. It may seem inconsistent to believe that claiming the deductions will not trigger an audit, while improperly claiming the deduction could increase the chances of being selected for an audit. However, consider that the IRS processes large numbers of tax returns from many different business types. This means that the service has a pretty good idea what typical taxpayers do. If you operate a business out of your home, then your home office deduction should look pretty much like the returns of similar businesses. In other words, reporting what you do and can document should not cause you any problems. Making something up might.

This leads us to myth number two. It is not true that simply working at home is sufficient to claim a home office deduction. The Business Use of Your Home section of Publication 535 Business Expenses explains:

To qualify to claim expenses for the business use of your home, you must meet both of the following tests.

  1. The business part of your home must be used exclusively and regularly for your trade or business.
  2. The business part of your home must be
    • Your principal place of business; or
    • A place where you meet or deal with patients, clients, or customers in the normal course of your trade or business; or
    • A separate structure (not attached to your home) used in connection with your trade or business.

Do you run your business from your kitchen table? Is your home office a desk in your guest room? If so, you may not be meeting the first criteria. The only exceptions to exclusive use are for storage or inventory or for daycare facilities.

The second test has three parts. The first two essentially say that this is where you do your work, and you have no other fixed location where you work. If you do work in other fixed locations, then you should determine your principal place of business based on the importance of the work done or time spent at each location. Refer to Publication 535 and Publication 587 for the specifics. It is also always a good idea to consult with your trained tax professional.

There are two methods for claiming business use of your home on your Form 1040. The first is to report all your expenses. These expenses could include mortgage interest, insurance, utilities, repairs, and depreciation. The second method is called the safe harbor method, and it basically allow up to five dollars per square foot up for up to 300 square feet.

What’s the true story?

There is no reason to believe that claiming a deduction for business use of a home will trigger an audit. If you legitimately set aside a part of your home and use it exclusively as your principal place of business, you should claim the deduction. If you claim the deduction, you can either claim your actual expenses or use the optional safe harbor method.

Common Tax Myths – Requesting an Extension

There are many things that are “common knowledge” about income taxes. Unfortunately, some of them are simply wrong. This short series of blog posts will address some of them. This post will examine a couple of myths relating to filing requests for extensions.

Request an extension. An extension will give you more time to pay your taxes.

Not only is this untrue, it will cost you. Form 4868 – Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return is used to request an extension of time to file not an extension of the payment due date. In fact, the instructions for the form caution:

Although you aren’t required to make a payment of the tax you estimate as due, Form 4868 doesn’t extend the time to pay taxes. If you don’t pay the amount due by the regular due date, you’ll owe interest. You may also be charged penalties.

Another part of this myth is the belief that requesting an extension also means that it is not necessary to do anything with your taxes by the normal due date. However, to qualify for an extension, you must attempt to estimate your tax liability. The instructions for the form say:

  1. Properly estimate your 2017 tax liability using the information available to you.
  2. Enter your total tax liability on line 4 of Form 4868, and
  3. File Form 4868 by the regular due date of your return

Never request an extension. Doing so will increase your chances of being audited.

This one is also untrue. The specific criteria that the IRS uses to select returns for audit is a secret. However, there is no reason to believe that requesting an extension of time to file your return will increase the likelihood that you will be audited. In fact, if you think about the reasons that people frequently request extensions, it may be possible that filing an extension request could reduce your chance of being audited. If this sounds confusing, consider that the reason that many people find themselves answering questions from the IRS include errors and missing information. Many taxpayers simply cannot meet the filing deadline because they do not have all their tax documentation. Filing without waiting for documents such as W-2s, 1099s, K-1s, or other documents is a good way to make mistakes. If you have a business, you may also need extra time to prepare your books.

If asking for extra time helps you prepare a complete and accurate return, then you should ask for extra time. On the other hand, if you can complete your return on time, you should make every effort to do so. If you are due a refund, all you are doing is postponing the return of your money, and if you have tax due, it is better to know the exact amount and arrange to pay even if you do not have the cash on hand.

How do you request an extension?

The IRS makes it easy. There are three ways to request an extension of time to file your individual income taxes.

  1. Use the IRS payment system available through the IRS website. The IRS will process and extension when you pay your estimated tax electronically.
  2. E-file using tax software or ask your tax professional to e-file an extension for you. You can e-file for free using the IRS website.
  3. File a paper Form 4868.