About the Home Office Deduction

Tax clients ask me all the time about taking a home office deduction. That topic has come up even more often since COVID-19 has so many people working at home. However, everyone with an office at home isn’t eligible for a home office deduction, even if she or he owns a business. Lots of rules apply. It can be pretty confusing. 

So, let’s “un-confuse” the topic:

  1. Who is eligible for a home office deduction?

Only individuals who own a business are eligible for the deduction. Yes, some employees used to be eligible under special circumstances, but those rules changed at the end of 2017. Now, only business owners who use space in her or his home exclusively and regularly to substantially conduct business operations can consider taking a home office deduction. No non-business activity can be conducted in a home office. That means no personal items in the home office, even clothes in the closet.

  1. What home expenses can be deducted?

Deductible home office expenses are either direct or indirect, based on the expense type and business percentage of the home used for business. The most common method used to calculate the business percentage is dividing the square footage used exclusively for business by total square footage. Shared spaces, like hallways, cannot be included in office space.  

  • Direct Expenses: Expenses that benefit only the home area that is exclusively used for business, such as painting or repairs in the home office, are direct expenses that are fully deductible.
  • Indirect Expenses: Expenses for keeping up and running the entire home, such as the mortgage interest, real estate taxes, insurance, utilities, and general repairs are deductible based on the business use percentage, described above.

Expenses to maintain the non-living home space, such as lawn care, are not deductible. For business owners who don’t want to hassle with tracking all the various home office expenses, the IRS has a Simplified Option that allows a standard deduction of $5 per square foot, limited to 300 square feet.  

Eligibility for a home office deduction is determined by a lot of rules that can be confusing. We address the basics here, but there’s more to it. Details and examples are on the IRS website at https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/home-office-deduction.

Expanded Educator Deduction for COVID-19 Safety

The educator deduction for out-of-pocket classroom expenses started as a temporary tax law provision in 2002. Primary and secondary schoolteachers could deduct up to $250 of the unreimbursed cost of books, supplies, computer equipment, and supplementary materials used in the classroom. In 2015, the deduction was made permanent. In 2016, the deduction was expanded to cover professional development expenses and was indexed for inflation.

Even with indexing for inflation and before the pandemic, $250+ a year did not put much of a dent in teacher spending. COVID-19 safety needs have made classroom expenses spike, just like other work environments. In June 2020, AdoptAClassroom.org surveyed U.S. educators to ask about classroom expenses during distance learning. It was not shocking to learn that teachers spent an average of $745 for classroom supplies in the 2019-20 school year. Almost half of the responding teachers reported spending more because of distance learning. 

The COVID-related Tax Relief Act of 2020 expanded the educator deduction further to help teachers afford the challenges of distance learning and returning to the classroom. Here’s what you need to know about the expanded educator deduction:

  • Who is Eligible for the Deduction?

You’re an eligible educator if, for the tax year you’re a kindergarten through grade 12 teacher, instructor, counselor, principal, or aide for at least 900 hours during the school year. Services must be performed in a school that provides elementary or secondary education as determined under state law.

  • What Safety Items Qualify?

COVID-19 protective items include, but are not limited to face masks, disinfectant, hand soap and sanitizer, disposable gloves, physical barriers like clear plexiglass, air purifiers, and other items recommended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.

  • When Can Safety Items be Included?

Qualified expenses include the amounts that you pay or incur after March 12, 2020, for personal protective equipment, disinfectant, and other supplies used for the prevention of the spread of coronavirus. The deduction is for expenses paid or incurred during 2020 are deductible on your 2020 federal tax return.

Still not sure if you or someone that you know is eligible for the expanded educator deduction for COVID-19 safety items? Read more details at https://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc458.

New Qualified Business Income Deduction

Headlines about the new tax law and its impacts are daily news. Some of the tax law changes are clear and easy to understand. Other changes are incredibly unclear and difficult to interpret. One particularly ambiguous tax law change is the new deduction for “qualified business income” contained in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It’s so confusing that the AICPA requested “immediate guidance” from the IRS last month.

 

The new deduction is the lesser of 20% of qualified business income or 50% of W-2 wages paid by pass-through businesses that operate as a sole proprietor (reported on Schedule C), partnership, Subchapter S Corporation, or owner of rental property (reported on Schedule E). Sounds pretty simple, but it’s really not.

 

More guidance will be coming at some point, but business owners often can’t wait to make decisions. Based on what is now known, businesses need to look closely at three considerations to know whether they are eligible to take the new qualified business income deduction:

 

  1. Excluded Businesses

Right off the bat, specified businesses are excluded from taking this new deduction. Businesses providing accounting, legal, consulting, and architect services are specifically excluded. Businesses that “rely on the skills and expertise of the owner or employees” are also excluded. That last part is certainly open to interpretation, and one of the reasons the AICPA’s requested IRS guidance.

 

  1. Income Level

The deduction of 20% of qualified business income is subject to a dollar limit, based on the owner’s filing status. For example, the dollar limit for a single individual is $157,500 and $315,000 for married couples filing a joint tax return. At first glance, this sounds pretty awesome, but required adjustments could reduce the limit.

 

  1. Wages Paid

After calculating 20% of qualified business income, compare it to 50% of total wages paid to employees. Sole proprietors don’t pay themselves wages, so this deduction is not available to them unless they pay wages to employees. Remember, it’s a “lesser of” situation, so if one option is zero, no deduction. Understanding the type of business entity and how workers are paid is essential to getting this right.

 

The number of complexities and variables to consider about qualified business income and the new tax deduction for pass-throughs are too long and dense to cover here. Plus, the IRS still needs to issue guidance to help business owners — and their accountants – make informed decisions and file their taxes next year. So stay tuned!

Are Legal Fees Tax Deductible?

The answer is—it depends! Generally, it depends on the nature of the expense. Legal expenses incurred for business purposes are generally deductible as ‘ordinary and necessary’ expenses of the business entity. Most legal fees paid for personal reasons are not deductible, but some exceptions exist.

 

Some relatively common situations exist where non-business legal fees may be deductible. These situations relate to doing or keeping a job, collecting taxable income, or getting tax advice. As always, details matter. The rules that apply and how to report can get pretty complicated.

 

Legal Expenses that May be Deducted are generally related to business, employment/income, and income taxes, such as:

  1. Legal expenses incurred in attempting to produce or collect taxable income, or paid in connection with the determination, collection, or refund of any tax.
  2. Related to either doing or keeping a job, such as legal fees paid related to a claim of unlawful discrimination.
  3. Tax advice related to a divorce if the fees are billed specifically for tax advice, determined in a reasonable way.
  4. To collect taxable alimony.
  5. To resolve individual tax issues relating to profit or loss from business, rentals or royalties, or farm income.

 

Legal Expenses that May Not be Deducted are generally related to personal legal needs, such as:

  1. Preparation of a will.
  2. Property claims or property settlement in a divorce.
  3. Custody of children.
  4. Civil or criminal charges resulting from a personal relationship.
  5. Damages for personal injury, other than for certain whistleblower and unlawful discrimination claims.

 

This list of situations highlights the importance of understanding the rules about which legal fees are tax deductible and which are not.  While the details of what’s going on aren’t under your control, you can control obtaining the documentation needed for those tax deductible legal fees.

 

Want to know more? This topic is so complicated, it’s addressed in four separate IRS publications: Tax Guide for Small Business, Publication 334, http://bit.ly/2sCks0Z; Miscellaneous Deductions, Publication 529, http://bit.ly/2tHPiom; Business Expenses, Publication 535, http://bit.ly/2pkyRwT; and Basis of Assets, Publication 551, http://bit.ly/2tF2c6X.