When disaster strikes, a casualty tax loss may provide some comfort. A casualty is the damage or destruction of property resulting from an identifiable event that is sudden, unexpected, or unusual. Damage resulting from the progressive deterioration of property through a steadily operating cause would not be a casualty loss. A deductible loss can result from a number of events, such as fire, flood, storm (including hurricanes and tornadoes), or earthquake. Storm losses can involve damage from flooding or wind, for example. Other “sudden and unexpected events,” such as an automobile accident, also qualify as a casualty for tax purposes.
According to the most recent reading of the U.S. Drought Monitor and other indicators, moderate to exceptional drought covered approximately 60 percent of the contiguous U.S. as of the end of August and is being compared to the droughts of the 1930’s, 1950’s and the summer of 1988. Unless a loss attributable to drought occurs in a trade or business or a for-profit transaction, however, it is generally not deductible. A loss must occur within a short period of time, for it to be deductible as a casualty loss. The IRS has said that most droughts lack the suddenness necessary for a casualty loss deduction. The conventional tax wisdom has been that, as a practical matter, a casualty loss should not be claimed unless there has been an officially declared water emergency or some general drought designation by the IRS. For example, a casualty loss deduction was allowed for structural damage to a house because of subsoil shrinkage in a 1977 Missouri drought that was declared a federal disaster. So far, the IRS has not spoken to the drought of 2012 but some guidance is expected to be announced in the near future.
Taxpayer has burden of proof
To deduct a casualty loss, the taxpayer must be able to show that there was a casualty loss and to justify the amount taken as a deduction. A taxpayer should be able to show: the type of casualty and its date of occurrence; that the loss was a direct result of the casualty; that the taxpayer owned the property (or was liable for the damage to the owner of the property); and whether there is a claim for reimbursement with a reasonable expectation of recovery.
The allowable deduction for business property destroyed in a casualty is usually different from the loss of personal property. If the property is used in a trade or business or other activity conducted for profit, the allowable deduction is the lesser of the property’s adjusted basis (before the casualty) or its decline in value because of the casualty. If business property is completely destroyed, the deduction is the full amount of the property’s adjusted basis, reduced by any insurance recovery, even if the basis exceeded the property’s value before the casualty.
If property owned outside of the business or investment setting, like a personal residence, is damaged, the loss is the lesser of the property’s decline in value or its adjusted basis, reduced by insurance proceeds or other reimbursement. Unlike business property, if personal property is completely destroyed, the loss cannot exceed the decline in value from the casualty, even if this is less than the basis. Furthermore, the loss must be reduced by $100 per casualty, and is deductible only to the extent that net casualty and theft losses exceed 10 percent of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. Unlike businesses, however, individuals have the option of treating a casualty loss as occurring in the immediately prior year, thereby often allowing for a quick refund through filing an amended return.
“Timely” insurance claim
To deduct a personal casualty loss, the taxpayer must have filed a timely insurance claim. The loss may be disallowed if the taxpayer fails to file a claim. Any portion of the loss that is not covered by insurance is not subject to this rule.
A recent court case discusses the requirement to file a timely insurance claim. A homeowner suffered loss of his home from fire. The homeowner immediately notified his insurance company of the loss, was assigned a claim number, and had the insurance company inspect the damage. However, the insurance company denied the claim. One reason it gave was that the homeowner failed to provide a statement as to proof of loss within 60 days, as required under the policy. After the insurance company denied the claim, the homeowner took a casualty loss deduction on his amended tax return.
Taxpayer deduction upheld
The IRS denied the casualty loss deduction, claiming that the taxpayer had failed to file a “timely insurance claim” as required by the tax code. The Federal Court of Claims rejected the IRS’s action and allowed the claim. The court said it was clear that the homeowner had filed a claim with the insurance company and that this was sufficient to comply with the tax code. The company’s ultimate denial of the claim under the terms of the policy was not relevant.
If you have suffered a casualty, it is important that you claim the full amount of the tax deduction to which you are entitled. If you have any questions about casualty losses, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414.