Rough Ride: IRS bans deductions for commuting

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As a rule, the Internal Revenue Service adamantly opposes taxpayers taking a deduction for commuting costs between home and work. The agency considers those outlays to be nondeductible personal expenses, no matter how necessary. It makes absolutely no difference if you work in a remote area not serviced by public transportation or if disability or illness rules out your using public transportation. This hard-nosed approach was underscored in a ruling that denied deductions for cab fares that a physically disabled person needed to get to and from work. Similarly, no write-offs become available merely because you need a car to get to work more quickly or in emergencies.

These commuting restrictions also eliminate a deduction for payments to a car pool, whether each member takes a turn driving his or her own car or only one does all the driving. On the other hand, you need not report payments from riders unless they exceed your expenses.

Is it possible to get around these restrictions if you install a telephone in your car and make calls to clients or business associates or hold business discussions while driving to work? The IRS says that does not transform the trips from commuting to business.

However, the IRS does make some exceptions to its blanket ban on deductions for commuting expenses. One of those exceptions authorizes a limited measure of relief for someone who needs to haul bulky tools or equipment that cannot go in a car. You are allowed to deduct the additional costs for hauling equipment, such as the charge for renting a trailer that is towed by your car. The car costs, though, remain nondeductible commuting expenses.

The Tax Court agreed with the IRS that a college teacher who drove from her home in suburban Westchester County to her job in New York City could not invoke the additional-cost exception.

The teacher used her car to transport books and other materials necessary to teach her classes, as the college did not provide storage facilities. On teaching days, she left home at noon and school at 10 in the evening; the drive each way was one hour. A trip by public transportation would have meant a walk of three blocks to a bus stop, a bus ride of 10 to 30 minutes to a train station, a train ride from the suburban station to Grand Central Station in New York City and a walk or taxi ride of 12 blocks to the college; in all, a one-way commute of about 90 minutes. On her tax return for the year in question, the teacher claimed an attention-grabbing $7,500 for car expenses.

This set of facts prompted the court to conclude that the teacher would have gotten behind the wheel even if it had not been necessary for her to transport her books. The court cited Fridays when she still drove, though she had no classes and came in merely to attend meetings or take care of duties other than teaching. Therefore, taking the books along did not cause her to incur additional costs.                           

Julian Block may be reached at julianblock@yahoo.com.