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Cohan Rule

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Last updated: 24 Nov, 2018
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By Jason Watson ()
Posted November 23, 2018

Let’s briefly discuss record keeping, and then jump into a famous New York entertainer named Cohan who ultimately provided a nifty rule that can be used during an IRS audit. To be able to demonstrate a business deduction you need to show the date, the amount and the person or business you paid. A bank or credit card statement, or canceled check, satisfies this. The second element is the business purpose must be documented either through a logbook, planner or accounting software. Proof of payment plus business purpose equals tax deduction.

Do you need receipts? Yes and no. For travel, gifts and meals, if the amount is under $75 then you only need to document the event and business purpose in a logbook or planner. However, if you spend $10 at Costco for some paper, then you need proof of payment plus business purpose documentation. Seems a bit onerous and even contradictory, but it is true.

Enter Cohan vs. Commissioner, 39 F. 2d 540 (2d Cir. 1930). Yes, 1930 and we still use it today. George Cohan gave us “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”, and he gave us a tax deduction rule. His rule is simple- you can approximate your business expenses and ultimately your business tax deduction. What?! No, it is not that simple.

You must have corroborating evidence that demonstrates your expense. For example, as a Colorado Springs CPA firm, the Watson CPA Group can demonstrate that we prepare so many tax returns which are so many pages in length, and therefore we can approximate our paper costs. Temp. Regs. Sec. 1.274-5T(c)(3) also gives latitude to the IRS to allow substantiation of a business expense by other means.

The Watson CPA Group has successfully used the Cohan rule in IRS examinations. We have also implemented it during tax preparation when records are incomplete or missing (i.e., one hot mess). Having said that, using estimates and approximations looks bad. Keep good records, please. Do not rely on the Cohan rule or some treasury regulation to save your butt.

The Cohan rule or any type of estimation cannot be used for travel, business gifts and meals. All the good stuff need strict record keeping habits. Section 274(d) of the U.S. Tax Code also states that listed property must be substantiated with proper documentation. Listed property includes automobiles, and equipment generally used in entertainment such as cameras and stereo equipment. Seems a bit out dated, but there you go. So, if you are a photographer who drives a car for business while entertaining guests, you will be a master at record keeping.

A logbook or planner is very influential during an audit. When a client can show contemporaneous records in a planner that coincides with travel, meals and home office use, the audit lasts about 90 minutes as opposed to four hours with a deficiency notice at the end. Contemporaneous comes from Latin, and means existing or happening during the same period. In other words, as things happen in your world, write them down in a logbook or planner.

Girls are better at this than boys because of purses which is why we now have European shoulder bags for boys. Yet boys still stink at record keeping. If you are a boy, keep in mind that your DNA precludes you from multitasking. You might be doing two things at once, but that in no way is multitasking. Your contemporaneous record keeping might be more sequential.

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