Understanding Small-Business Tax Deductions
How tax savvy a businessperson you are has a great effect on how much money is in your pocket at the end of the year. You probably know that the tax code allows you to deduct costs of doing business from your gross income. What you are left with is your net business profit. This is the amount that gets taxed.
So knowing how to maximize your deductible business expenses lowers your taxable profit. To boot, you may enjoy a personal benefit from a business expenditure -- a nice car to drive, a combination business trip/vacation and a retirement savings plan -- if you follow the myriad tax rules. The balance of this article deals with the best ways to get the biggest business expense deduction bang for your buck.
Business Operating Expenses
We won't burden you with a lot of tax code sections, but hear us out on this one. IRC § 162 is the cornerstone for determining the tax-deductibility of every business expenditure. It is fairly lengthy, but the first hundred or so words are the key:
"Internal Revenue Code § 162. 'Trade or business expenses.'
"(a) In general. There shall be allowed as a deduction all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business, including
"(1) a reasonable allowance for salaries or other compensation for personal services actually rendered;
"(2) traveling expenses (including amounts expended for meals and lodging other than amounts which are lavish or extravagant under the circumstances) while away from home in the pursuit of a trade or business; and
"(3) rentals or other payments required to be made as a condition to the continued use or possession, for purposes of the trade or business, of property to which the taxpayer has not taken or is not taking title or in which he has no equity."
Section 162 goes on -- and on -- but the rest of it deals with specific items that can't be deducted. Those with relevance to small businesses are covered later. Other code sections contain specific rules for deducting purchases of assets used in your business -- machinery, cars and a thousand other things.
In most cases, a legitimate business expense under IRC § 162 is obvious. In some cases, such as outlays for travel, the IRS provides specific instructions for determining whether or not an expense is "ordinary and necessary." This is often done through various IRS publications ("pubs") and "regulations."
Like the rest of the tax code, IRC § 162 is far from crystal clear. Starting with the meaning of "ordinary and necessary," we suspect that things could go wrong for us. The tax code doesn't define either "ordinary" or "necessary." Instead, federal courts have tried to figure out what Congress intended and apply it to a particular set of facts. "Ordinary" has been held by courts to mean "normal, common and accepted under the circumstances by the business community." "Necessary" means "appropriate and helpful." Taken together, the legal consensus is that "ordinary and necessary" refers to the purpose for which an expense is made. For instance, renting office space is ordinary and necessary for many business folks, but it is neither unless it is actually used in running an enterprise for profit.
Given these broad legal guidelines, it is not surprising that some folks have tried to push the envelope on "ordinary and necessary" business expenses, and the IRS has pushed back. Sometimes a compromise is reached, and sometimes the issue is thrown into a court's lap.
The laugh test. Tax pros frequently rely on the "laugh test": Can you put down an expense for business without laughing about putting one over on the IRS? In the example above, the Tax Court laughed the accountant and his yacht out of court.
Because the IRS knows that people don't intentionally overpay for anything, amounts paid aren't usually questioned. However, IRS auditors sometimes object to expenditures deemed unreasonably large under the circumstances.
While the tax code itself contains no "too big" limitation, courts have ruled that it is inherent in IRC § 162. For example, it might be reasonable for a multi-state apparel company to lease a jet for travel between manufacturing plants, but not for a corner deli owner to fly to New York to meet with her pickle supplier.
The number one concern of the IRS when auditing business deductions is whether purely personal expenditures are being claimed as business expenses. For instance, you can't deduct the cost of commuting to work, because the tax code specifically says this is a personal, not a business, expense. Ditto with using the business credit card for a vacation or cruising the beach in the company car. Because such shenanigans are common, IRS auditors are ever watchful.
Fortunately, you can often arrange your affairs -- legally -- in a way that lets you derive considerable personal benefit and enjoyment from business expenditures.
NOTE: Be careful if you deal with relatives. An IRS auditor will look askance at payments to a family member or to another business in which your relatives have an ownership interest. In tax code parlance, these are termed "related parties." An auditor may suspect that taxable profits are being taken out of your business for direct or indirect personal benefit in the guise of deductible expenses. For example, paying your spouse's father, who is in prison, $5,000 as a consultant's fee for your restaurant business would smell bad to an auditor.