Travel Expense Deductions – Business or Pleasure?

Many business owners combine travel for work with some vacation days. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but to be sure you are accounting for it correctly on your tax return, here are some tips:

Business or Pleasure?
Before determining what you can deduct, you need to determine whether the trip is classified as business or pleasure. You should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip if business days exceed personal days. So what days count as business days?

  • Travel days, as well as weekends and holidays if they fall between days devoted to business, and it would be impractical to return home.
  • Standby days (days when your physical presence is required), even if you aren’t called upon to work those days.
  • Any other day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours.
  • Days when you intended to work but couldn’t due to reasons beyond your control (such as local transportation difficulties).

What Can You Deduct?
If you determine that the purpose of your trip was primarily business, you can deduct:

  • Transportation costs to and from the location of your business activity
  • Travel to and from your departure airport, airfare, baggage fees, tips, cabs, etc.
  • Costs for rail travel or driving your personal car.
  • Out-of-pocket expenses for business days once at the destination
  • Lodging, hotel tips, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare.

Documentation
It isn’t enough to get yourself comfortable that your trip was primarily for business. You must be able to prove it to the IRS. If your trip is made to attend client meetings, log everything on your daily planner and copy the pages for your tax file. If you attend a convention or training seminar, keep the program and take notes to show you attended the sessions.

Here are two recent U.S. Tax Court cases that help illustrate the rules for documenting deductions, and the consequences for failing to do so:

Case 1: Insufficient records
In the first case, the court found that a taxpayer with a consulting business provided no proof to substantiate more than $52,000 in advertising expenses and $12,000 in travel expenses for the two years in question.

The business owner said the travel expenses were incurred ”caring for his business.“ That isn’t enough. ”The taxpayer bears the burden of proving that claimed business expenses were actually incurred and were ordinary and necessary,“ the court stated. In addition, businesses must keep and produce ”records sufficient to enable the IRS to determine the correct tax liability.“ (TC Memo 2016-158)

Case 2: Documents destroyed
In another case, a taxpayer was denied many of the deductions claimed for his company. He traveled frequently for the business, which developed machine parts. In addition to travel, meals, and entertainment, he also claimed printing and consulting deductions.

The taxpayer recorded expenses in a spiral notebook and day planner and kept his records in a leased storage unit. While on a business trip to China, his documents were destroyed after the city where the storage unit was located acquired it by eminent domain.

There’s a way for taxpayers to claim expenses if substantiating documents are lost through circumstances beyond their control (for example, in a fire or flood). However, the court noted that a taxpayer still has to ”undertake a ‘reasonable reconstruction,’ which includes substantiation through secondary evidence.“

The court allowed 40% of the taxpayer’s travel, meals and entertainment expenses, but denied the remainder as well as the consulting and printing expenses. The reason? The taxpayer didn’t reconstruct those expenses through third-party sources or testimony from individuals whom he’d paid. (TC Memo 2016-135)

The Moral? Be Prepared
Keep detailed, accurate records to protect your business deductions, whether for travel or anything else. Record details about expenses as soon as possible after they’re incurred (for example, the date, place, business purpose, etc.). Keep more than just proof of payment. Also keep other documents, such as receipts, credit card slips, and invoices.

If you’re unsure of what you need, check with a CPA.  Contact us rsibley@abcpa.com, bbailey@abcpa.com, dchandler@abcpa.com, or cmozingo@abcpa.com!