Tax tidbits

Why It Pays to Keep Current Records of Business Driving Deductions


Expert Julian Block explains why you should keep records that support business driving deductions and offers some reminders for 1040 time.

Nov 5th 2019
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In fifteen previous columns, I discussed my use of “tax tidbits” to enliven conversations when talking taxes with clients, speaking to groups like business owners, retirees, investors and home sellers, or teaching adult education courses at places like high schools and community colleges. The tidbits discuss, among other things, IRS rulings, law changes, court decisions and tactics that trim taxes for this year and even future ones.

I‘d like to share more of my favorites with you here.

Save records that back up deductions for business driving: IRS examiners often zero in on deductions for car and other travel expenses. But examiners are willing to cut some slack. They’ll accept standard-rate deductions (58 cents per mile for 2019, up from 54.5 cents for 2018) for business driving, provided taxpayers have adequate records that substantiate the business miles claimed.

My standard advice to clients and others who write off their business driving is that they should keep glove-compartment diaries or other records that note why and how far they went and what they shelled out for parking and tolls. Their diary entries are more persuasive when made close to when the trips occur, not when filing deadlines loom.

I also explain why they should stay within the speed limits. IRS regulations prohibit deductions for traffic tickets.

On the plus side, all isn’t lost when they fail to heed my advice and neglect to keep auto logs showing how many miles they drove. The IRS allows them to prove instead what mileage they unquestionably incurred.

For instance, the IRS audited a person I’ll call Daisy, someone who was unwilling to keep logs. Fortunately for Daisy, her audit was assigned to a helpful examiner who told her that she could use other records to establish twice-weekly traveling between her office and a client location.

Daisy then multiplied the mileage to the client location by the number of trips that she was able to show she made. The examiner decided that she had substantiated deductions for most of those trips. While the examiner disallowed some of Daisy’s deductions, he permitted her to salvage most of them.

Saul Bellow, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts, and no stranger to the Tax Court, on income taxes: “Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man's life is not a business.”—Herzog, 1964

My personal favorite is one that I received from a person who prefers to remain anonymous: Unemployment benefits for employees are funded by taxes collected from employers. The taxes are authorized by legislation titled the Federal Unemployment Tax Act. They’re referred to informally as FUTA taxes. The legislation’s original title, so the story goes, was the Federal Unemployment Compensation Act. Fortunately, alert bureaucrats realized that the resulting acronym would be inappropriate and they renamed the legislation.

Reminders for 1040 time: The law requires employers to give employees W-2 forms reporting wages and taxes withheld. These forms sometimes show incorrect figures, which is why you should compare your W-2 with your last payroll stub for the year. In the event of a difference, ask for a corrected copy.

No need for taxpayers to panic if they’re unable to complete their 1040 forms by the usual due date of April 15 and are concerned about being slapped with nondeductible late-filing penalties of as much as 25 percent of the tax they still owe, plus interest charges that are similarly nondeductible. All that need be done is to submit easily completed Form 4868 by the due date for an automatic six-month extension to Oct. 15. The IRS doesn’t ask taxpayers to explain why they seek to postpone the inevitable.

Look for more tidbits in subsequent columns.

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 300 and counting).