“Oh what I’d give to get a good night’s sleep.” We’ve heard that before, maybe even said it ourselves, especially during tax season. But tax preparer Joyce Linzy was prepared to spend money to make it happen.
Linzy prepared taxes out of her home, which was convenient. But her clients knew where she lived, which was not so convenient. Her tax season was stressful enough, but with the added aggravation of clients calling or coming to her home “at any hour” she felt the need to get away from time to time. In order to buy some rest and peace of mind, she incurred travel expenses, deducting $3,786 on her 2009 return.
She felt harassed by her clients who would call her at home at any hour, and felt that it was necessary for her to travel “just to get rest so that [she] could function.” She provided invoices from a Holiday Inn, a car rental service and a casino.
The Tax Court ruled against her in Linzy v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-219. It noted that Section 162(a) allows a taxpayer to deduct all ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred in carrying on a trade or business, generally a question of fact. A taxpayer must show a bona fide business purpose for the expenditure, and there must also be a proximate relationship between the expenditure and the business, according to the court.
The court said that Linzy failed to show that her travel expenses were related to her business. “A taxpayer’s choice about where to live is personal,” it reasoned. “Therefore, petitioner’s travel for a good night’s rest was a personal expense, not a deductible business expense.”
Could the result have been any different if Linzy had structured her business and the payments any other way? After all, tax prep and accounting firms typically engage in stress relief activities during tax season, such as providing a massage therapist, taking the staff out, even bringing in a clown.
What if Linzy operated out of an S or a C corporation? Could she characterize the payment as a deductible expense of the corporation, but a de minimis fringe benefit to herself?
“Dream on,” said Roger Harris, president of Padgett Business Services. “She worked out of her house and couldn’t get away from her clients, so she decided to get away from her clients to get a break. If we want to get away, we just go home, but we can’t deduct going home.
“I understand what she tried to say, but why can’t I deduct going home?” he added. “If traveling away from stress is deductible, then going home should be deductible.
“At some point she crossed the de minimis line,” Harris said. “Maybe there is a de minimis amount that companies use when they bring in lunch or give massages, but this was obviously way more than that. Even if a company could justify it as a business expense, it would have amounted to some sort of taxable benefit to the recipient, so it would have been deductible in one place and picked up as income in another. Once you get over the de minimis level, it’s a push.”
A good rule of thumb is to verbalize your position, observed Harris. “Sometimes in our head we can justify something that seems to make perfect sense, but say it out loud to somebody else before you say it to an IRS agent. Her only argument was that she couldn’t get away from her clients. Because of that she had to leave home to do what a person who works in an office can do just by going home. But I can’t deduct going home, so why should she be able to deduct going to a casino?”