Everybody knows that tax deductions aren’t allowed without proof in the form of documentation. What records are needed to “prove it” to the IRS vary depending upon the type of deduction that you may want to claim. Some documentation cannot be collected “after the fact,” whether it takes place a few months after an expense is incurred or later, when you are audited by the IRS. This article reviews some of those deductions for which the IRS requires you to generate certain records either contemporaneously as the expense is being incurred, or at least no later than when you file your return. We also highlight several deductions for which contemporaneous documentation, although not strictly required, is extremely helpful in making your case before the IRS on an audit.
Charitable contributions. For cash contributions (including checks and other monetary gifts), the donor must retain a bank record or a written acknowledgment from the charitable organization. A cash contribution of $250 or more must be substantiated with a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the donee. “Contemporaneous” for this purpose is defined as obtaining an acknowledgment before you file your return. So save those letters from the charity, especially for your larger donations.
Tip records. A taxpayer receiving tips must keep an accurate and contemporaneous record of the tip income. Employees receiving tips must also report the correct amount to their employers. The necessary record can be in the form of a diary, log or worksheet and should be made at or near the time the income is received.
Wagering losses. Gamblers need to substantiate their losses. The IRS usually accepts a regularly maintained diary or similar record (such as summary records and loss schedules) as adequate substantiation, provided it is supplemented by verifiable documentation. The diary should identify the gambling establishment and the date and type of wager, as well as amounts won and lost. Verifiable documentation can include wagering tickets, canceled checks, credit card records, and withdrawal slips from banks.
Vehicle mileage log. A taxpayer can deduct a standard mileage rate for business, charitable or medical use of a vehicle. If the car is also used for personal purposes, the taxpayer should keep a contemporaneous mileage log, especially for business use. If the taxpayer wants to deduct actual expenses for business use of a car also used for personal purposes, the taxpayer has to allocate costs between the business and personal use, based on miles driven for each.
Material participation in business activity. Taxpayers that materially participate in a business generally can deduct business losses against other income. Otherwise, they can only deduct losses against passive income. An individual’s participation in an activity may be established by any reasonable means. Contemporaneous time reports, logs, or similar documents are not required but can be particularly helpful to document material participation. To identify services performed and the hours spent on the services, records may be established using appointment books, calendars, or narrative summaries.
Hobby loss. Taxpayers who do not engage conduct an activity with a sufficient profit motive may be considered to engage in a hobby and will not be able to deduct losses from the activity against other income. Maintaining accurate books and records can itself be an indication of a profit motive. Moreover, the time and activities devoted to a particular business can be essential to demonstrate that the business has a profit motive. Contemporaneous records can be an important indicator.
Travel and entertainment. Expenses for travel and entertainment are subject to strict substantiation requirements. Taxpayers should maintain records of the amount spent, the time and place of the activity, its business purpose, and the business relationship of the person being entertained. Contemporaneous records are particularly helpful.