Tax tidbits

Does a Vet Count as a Qualified Medical Expense?


Tax expert Julian Block returns with more useful tidbits from his decades of experience. In his column, he talks about whether you can deduct a vet visit as a qualified medical expense and much more.

Jan 22nd 2020
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I’ve devoted previous columns (seventeen so far and more in the pipeline) to “tax tidbits” and discussing qualified medical expenses are among them. The columns explain what tidbits are and how I use them.

What kinds of tidbits make it into those columns? For the most part, I discuss court decisions, IRS rulings and other agency announcements, and wide-ranging revisions of our Byzantine Internal Revenue Code, such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that President Trump signed in 2017, the most comprehensive overhaul since the Tax Reform Act that President Reagan signed in 1986.

Add to the mix my answers to questions from accountants, attorneys and other tax professionals who read my columns (more than 320 and counting) for AccountingWeb.

I also include amusing or perceptive comments about America’s tax laws—whether negative (almost invariably) or positive (seldom)—by politicians, judges, entertainers and authors. Their comments bring to vibrant life a dry subject that has been the source of fierce political contention for more than a century.

Some tidbits, such as the humorous comments are short; usually, they’re under 50 words. I use them to enliven conversations with clients about torpid topics like proposed law changes, taking care not to tell them more than they would ever want to know about those revisions. 

Others are lengthier. They explain easy-to-implement, completely kosher tactics that enable individuals to trim their taxes for this year and even provide them with a head start for next year. I use them to, among other things, convert prospective clients into new clients.

How do those folks happen to hear the tidbits? Usually, because they go to one of my talks for groups like home sellers, business owners, investors and retirees. Or because they attend one of the adult education courses that I teach at places like high schools and community colleges.

At those events, my tidbits help to show attendees how to nimbly  sidestep pitfalls while capitalizing on opportunities to diminish, delay, or deep-six payments of sizable amounts that would otherwise swell IRS coffers. Fortunately for me, my explanations prompt some attendees to become clients.

A final thought, Dear Reader, about how my columns help other readers to increase their client roster. What a steadily growing number of them do is to insert my tidbits into their talks.

Want to do the same? If yes, read the previous tidbits. Then read below for the latest ones.

My clients often complain about continual changes to tax laws that are already confusing. To relax them, I mention Russell Baker, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes for his books and “Sunday Observer” columns that appeared in the New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers throughout the nation for 36 years.

Why do I throw in mentions of him? Because his columns sometimes slyly and perceptively skewered efforts to simplify our tax system and his views on efforts to reform our tax system remain relevant.

My favorite one is in the column that ran on September 4, 1976: Baker began with "The words `tax reform' send chills down the spine of every sentient American because each new reform deepens the nightmare of income tax law.

(Personal note number one: It was in 1967 that I learned the expensive way what the word “sentient” means. 1967 was when I competed four times on “Jeopardy!” (meaning three wins were followed by a loss). Fifty-plus years later, the questions I couldn’t answer still trouble me. The one that rankles the most: What’s a nine-letter word that starts with “s” and is a synonym for “sentient?” Had I said “sensitive,” there might have been god knows how many more appearances.)

Baker continued with “Just when you have got a purchase on this monster, Congress reforms it and everybody has to start all over again. It has become a complexity to confound a Dickens lawyer, a maze to make King Minos's labyrinth look like a playpen. The conscientious citizen would have to devote every waking hour to its study if he wanted to make a reasonably close guess at what he owes his Government each April.

Baker concluded: Even then, he would probably be wrong. Last year a test of Internal Revenue's workers—the people who help the desperate fill out their forms—showed that the majority even of these ‘experts’ didn't know what the law means. So now, unless supernatural providence intervenes, it is all going to be changed again."

(Personal note number two: More than four decades later, Baker’s invitation to supernatural providence to intervene remains unheeded, perhaps because it would be inherently unfair to deprive Americans of the opportunity to show just what sensitive souls they actually are.)

Question: My dog depends on me for food, and I depend on my dog for protection from harm in the night. I think of him as part of the family. Will the IRS growl if my medical-expense deductions include a payment to a veterinarian?

Answer: It definitely will. When Leland Schoen made that very argument, the Tax Court agreed with the agency that “in no circumstances can man’s best friend qualify as a dependent by blood, marriage, or adoption.” So, Fido’s medical expenses were thrown out.

Fran Lebowitz’s trifecta on dogs, children and taxes: “A dog who thinks he is man's best friend is a dog who obviously has never met a tax lawyer.” “If you are truly serious about preparing your child for the future, don't teach him to subtract—teach him to deduct.”   

(My final personal note: Fran, for those of you who need a reminder, is an American author, public speaker and occasional actor, best known for her social commentary on life in the United States as filtered through the sensibilities of someone who lives in New York City and, say some reviewers, for being a modern-day Dorothy Parker.) 

Look for more tidbits in future columns that will be mostly devoid of personal notes.

Additional articles: A reminder for accountants who would welcome advice on how to alert clients to tactics that trim taxes for this year and even give a head start for next year: Delve into the archive of my articles (more than 320 and counting).