Monday, March 14, 2016

Vacation Or Business Deduction?

Let’s say that we work together. I cannot attend an appointment with a new client first thing in the morning. You volunteer to cover for me.

By the way, welcome to tax practice. Believe me, it is not the glitz and glamour that Hollywood makes it out to be. I know: hard to believe.

You meet the Fishers. They are both attorneys, he as partner in a firm and she as a sole practitioner. They have three children, all under the age of 10. She takes her kids to work periodically for the customary reason: the cost of day care and family members unable to care for the kids at the time.

She had an opportunity to represent a client in the Czech Republic for a few weeks, and she took it. It turned out however that he was unable to watch the kids. Seeing herself in a jam, she took the kids with her but came up with a novel twist:

She would write a travel book about the Czech Republic. It would be written to and for kids and would lessen their tedium while travelling.

She had no previous writing experience, so this was new territory. It occurred to her that other parents might be interested in such books – and this could be a business opportunity for a sharp and motivated person.

She has kept this up now for three years. She has now taken the kids to Disney World as well as to several cities in Europe.

You talk to her about the IRS and its “hobby loss” rules. She is an attorney, not a writer; there is a gigantic personal enjoyment factor present, ….

She cuts you off. Remember: she is an attorney. She has read up on this area of tax law, and she thinks she meets the requirements. For example,

·        She consulted with one of her clients, a published author, who gave her advice on both writing and publishing.
·        That person introduced her to a book distributor, who suggested she hire a graphic designer. She did so.
·        She also consulted with a friend who works at HarperCollins; the friend recommended she hire an agent. She has not done that yet.
·        She completed four prototype books, but has not submitted them for publication. She has instead self-published. Sales however have been minimal.

The Fishers need to file returns for the last three years. Her combined loss from the book-writing activity is approximately $75,000.

They ask whether you can prepare their returns and claim the book-writing loss.

What do you say?

The big issue is whether the activity rises to the level of a tax deduction. You remember some of the factors that the IRS uses to identify a hobby:

·        Not run in a business-like fashion
·        Failure to consult experts
·        Failure to revise business plans when losses pile up
·        Profits dwarfed by the losses

But Ms. Fisher has been meeting people. She has made contacts at a publishing house. She has written prototypes. She has self-published. She seems to be getting some things right.

You don’t see a clear-cut answer. Two people can reasonably disagree. The problem of course is that the IRS has a bit more horsepower than the average person you might disagree with.

You wobble. You tell them that you want to review the literature in this area, as the issue is walking the grey lands. You will call them tomorrow.

We have a chance to talk about the meeting.

I see two things immediately:

(1)   Can we prepare and sign the return under professional standards?
(2)   If so, there is still a significant chance that they would lose the deduction on audit.

Professional standards allow a tax practitioner some leeway when confronted with certain issues. This is fortunate, or professional practice would likely grind to a near halt.  The bar can be higher or lower depending upon the particular issue under discussion. Take a “listed transaction,” for example, and the bar is pretty high. Listed transaction is jargon for tax shelter, and we are nowhere near that with the Fishers. Our bar is much lower.

However, I would say our best chance with the IRS is 50:50, and likely less than that.  We would discuss this with the client and allow them to decide. It is their return, after all. Maybe they will get another accountant’s opinion. Maybe I am wrong.

This is a real case, by the way.

The Fishers are from New York and took this issue to Tax Court.

They lost.

The Court decided that her activity was not so much a business as her investigating going into business. The Court pointed out a few things: she had not hired an agent, had not finalized a book, and had not submitted a proposal to a publishing house. Since business activity had not started, it did not have to consider whether the activity was a hobby.

No business activity = no business deduction.

What do I think?

The Court saw too much personal and not enough business. I suppose that had she been making money the Court may have relented. She had to clear the hurdle of deducting what many people would see as vacations, and that required some serious weight on the other end of the see-saw to sway the Court.

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