Take advantage of tax deductions for business travel and entertainment

Elizabeth Rosen
by Elizabeth Rosen, Contributor

When entertaining clients or traveling on business, you may be eligible for Federal income tax deductions on a portion of your expenses that are not reimbursed by an employer. However, the criteria for claiming and substantiating these tax deductions can be complex, as taxpayers have been known to overstate the travel/entertainment deductions and adjustments to which they are actually entitled.

Because the IRS is more likely to audit tax returns in which deductions for business travel and entertainment are claimed, it is important to follow the guidelines regarding these deductions as closely as possible.

READ: Some tax deductions are better than others

Here is some information to help you take advantage of the opportunity to lower your business costs through these generous tax breaks.

According to the IRS, taxpayers may deduct “ordinary and necessary business-related expenses” for traveling away from home and entertaining clients and customers. The IRS defines an ordinary expense as an expense that is common and accepted in the taxpayer’s trade or business.

On the other hand, a necessary expense is one that is considered appropriate for the business. The general rule is that taxpayers who deduct these expenses must exclude personal expenses when calculating their tax deductions. You are also required to have documentation to substantiate these expenses. In most cases, only 50% of business meal and entertainment expenses can be deducted.

The IRS warns that the expenses “must be reasonable and appropriate,” and that deductions for “extravagant expenses” are not allowed.

READ: Determining the right tax deductions for your marriage

While this doesn’t mean that you cannot claim tax deductions for first-class travel or high-priced entertainment, you should be prepared to verify that those expenses were useful in building relationships with clients and increasing sales. For example, you would need to be able to demonstrate that dining in an expensive restaurant is customary in your particular business or industry.

If you travel away from home on business for substantially longer than an ordinary work day, you are permitted to deduct related expenses — including the cost of reaching your destination, the cost of lodging and meals, and other ordinary and necessary expenses.

The actual cost of meals and incidental expenses may be deducted, or you may use a standard meal allowance and reduced recordkeeping requirements. Regardless of the method that you use, your meal deductions are generally limited to 50%.

Only the actual costs for lodging may be claimed as an expense, and remember to that your receipts must be kept for documentation.

It is important also to keep in mind that travel expenses incurred while away from home and in connection with an existing business are considered qualified travel expenses. On the other hand, travel expenses which are incurred in connection with starting a new business should be added to amortizable start-up expenses.

READ: Can I claim a home office tax deduction for part-time work?

If your travel is both business and personal in nature, then the rules are more complicated. Assuming you took the trip primarily for business reasons, the cost of traveling to and from the location is fully deductible — as are the hotel, meals, and other traveling expenses incurred in the business portion of the trip.

If, however, your trip was primarily for pleasure, no portion of the travel expenses to/from the destination are deductible — but business-related expenses incurred at the destination are deductible.

If you are taking a trip that combines both business and pleasure, you should keep a record of your business activities to substantiate the tax deductions you want to claim. If your spouse, child, friend, or relative accompanies you on a business trip, the expenses attributable to his or her travel are not tax-deductible (unless there is a business purpose for the person’s presence).

Expenses for entertaining clients, business associates, or employees may be deducted if they are both ordinary and necessary and meet either the “directly-related” or the “associated” test.

  • The entertainment activity meets the directly-related test if the activity’s main purpose was to conduct business, or if business was actually conducted during the activity, and if you have more than a general expectation of deriving income (or some other specific business benefit) from the activity in the future. This would include restaurant meals with clients during which business was conducted, as well as entertaining clients in hospitality rooms at conventions and trade shows where business was being actively conducted. But if the business discussion is only incidental to the entertainment (such as on a fishing or hunting trip, an outing on a yacht, or at a theater or sports event) the entertainment expenses would not meet the directly-related test.
     
  • The entertainment activity may meet the associated test if it was associated with the active conduct of your trade or business, and was directly preceded or followed by a substantial business discussion. However, a business discussion is not considered substantial unless you can show that you actively engaged in the discussion, meeting, negotiation, or other business transaction to derive income or some other specific business benefit.

READ: What tax records should I be keeping while in my 20s?

You are generally permitted to deduct 50% of the face value of the cost of tickets to a business-related entertainment event. You may, however, be allowed to deduct the full cost of a ticket to a sporting event that benefits a charitable organization (if certain conditions are met). 

The 50% limitation on entertainment expenses also does not apply if you provide meals or entertainment to the general public as a means of advertising or promoting goodwill in the community.

In order to substantiate a business-related travel or entertainment expense, you must be able to document the amount of the item, the time and place the expense was incurred, the business purpose of the item, and your business relationship to the recipient of the entertainment item.

When claiming entertainment tax deductions, you should document the nature of your relationship with the clients or business associates — such as their identities, occupations, titles, or other relevant designations. You must also be able to prove that you or your employee was present at the event.