Stay within the tax rules when combining business and personal travel

Whether for a day, a week or longer, many of the costs associated with business trips may be tax-deductible. The tax code includes a myriad of rules designed to prevent abuses of tax-deductible business travel. One concern is that taxpayers will disguise personal trips as business trips. However, there are times when taxpayers can include some personal activities along with business travel and not run afoul of the IRS.

Business travel

You are considered “traveling away from home” for tax purposes if your duties require you to be away from the general area of your home for a period substantially longer than an ordinary day’s work, and you need sleep or rest to meet the demands of work while away. Taxpayers who travel on business may deduct travel expenses if they are not otherwise lavish or extravagant. Business travel expenses include the costs of getting to and from the business destination and any business-related expenses at that destination.

Deductible travel expenses while away from home include, but are not limited to, the costs of:

  • Travel by airplane, train, bus, or car to/from the business destination.
  • Fares for taxis or other types of transportation between the airport or train station and lodging, the lodging location and the work location, and from one customer to another, or from one place of business to another.
  • Meals and lodging.
  • Tips for services related to any of these expenses.
  • Dry cleaning and laundry.
  • Business calls while on the business trip.
  • Other similar ordinary and necessary expenses related to business travel.

Business mixed with personal travel

Travel that is primarily for personal reasons, such as a vacation, is a nondeductible personal expense. However, taxpayers often mix personal travel with business travel. In many cases, business travelers may able to engage in some non-business activities and not lose all of the tax benefits associated with business travel.

The primary purpose of a trip is determined by looking at the facts and circumstances of each case. An important factor is the amount of time you spent on personal activities during the trip as compared to the amount of time spent on activities directly relating to business.

Let’s look at an example. Amanda, a self-employed architect, resides in Seattle. Amanda travels on business to Denver. Her business trip lasts six days. Before departing for home, Amanda travels to Colorado Springs to visit her son, Jeffrey. Amanda’s total expenses are $1,800 for the nine days that she was away from home. If Amanda had not stopped in Colorado Springs, her trip would have been gone only six days and the total cost would have been $1,200. According to past IRS precedent, Amanda can deduct $1,200 for the trip, including the cost of round-trip transportation to and from Denver.

Weekend stayovers

Business travel often concludes on a Friday but it may be more economical to stay over Saturday night and take advantage of a lower travel fare. Generally, the costs of the weekend stayover are deductible as long as they are reasonable. Staying over a Saturday night is one way to add some personal time to a business trip.

Foreign travel

The rules for foreign travel are particularly complex.  The amount of deductible travel expenses for foreign travel is linked to how much of the trip was business related.  Generally, an individual can deduct all of his or her travel expenses of getting to and from the business destination if the trip is entirely for business.

In certain cases, foreign travel is considered entirely for business even if the taxpayer did not spend his or her entire time on business activities. For example, a foreign business trip is considered entirely for business if the taxpayer was outside the U.S. for more than one week and he or she spent less than 25 percent of the total time outside the U.S. on non-business activities. Other exceptions exist for business travel outside the U.S. for less than one week and in cases where the employee did not have substantial control in planning the trip.

Foreign conventions are especially difficult, but no impossible, to write off depending upon the circumstances. The taxpayer may deduct expenses incurred in attending foreign convention seminar or similar meeting only if it is directly related to active conduct of trade or business and if it is as reasonable to be held outside North American area as within North American area.

Tax home

To determine if an individual is traveling away from home on business, the first step is to determine the location of the taxpayer’s tax home. A taxpayer’s tax home is generally his or her regular place of business, regardless of where he or she maintains his or her family home. An individual may not have a regular or main place of business. In these cases, the individual’s tax home would generally be the place where he or she regularly lives.  The duration of an assignment is also a factor. If an assignment or job away from the individual’s main place of work is temporary, his or her tax home does not change. Generally, a temporary assignment is one that lasts less than one year.

The distinction between tax home and family home is important, among other reasons, to determine if certain deductions are allowed. Here’s an example.

Alec’s family home is in Tucson, where he works for ABC Co. 14 weeks a year.  Alec spends the remaining 38 weeks of the year working for ABC Co. in San Diego. Alec has maintained this work schedule for the past three years. While in San Diego, Alec resides in a hotel and takes most of his meals at restaurants.  San Diego would be treated as Alec’s tax home because he spends most of his time there. Consequently, Alec would not be able to deduct the costs of lodging and meals in San Diego.

Accountable and nonaccountable plans

Many employees are reimbursed by their employer for business travel expenses. Depending on the type of plan the employer has, the reimbursement for business travel may or may not be taxable. There are two types of plans: accountable plans and nonaccountable plans.

An accountable plan is not taxable to the employee. Amounts paid under an accountable plan are not wages and are not subject to income tax withholding and federal employment taxes. Accountable plans have a number of requirements:

  • There must be a business connection to the expenditure. The expense must be a deductible business expense incurred in connection with services performed as an employee. If not reimbursed by the employer, the expense would be deductible by the employee on his or her individual income tax return.
  • There must be adequate accounting by the recipient within a reasonable period of time. Employees must verify the date, time, place, amount and the business purpose of the expenses.
  • Excess reimbursements or advances must be returned within a reasonable period of time.

Amounts paid under a nonaccountable plan are taxable to employees and are subject to all employment taxes and withholding.  A plan may be labeled an accountable plan but if it fails to qualify, the IRS treats it as a nonaccountable plan. If you have any questions about accountable plans, please contact our office.

As mentioned, the tax rules for business travel are complex. Please contact our office if you have any questions.

If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.

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