Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tax Code's disaster relief provisions can help after a natural disaster

Almost every day brings news reports of Americans recovering from tornados, wild fires, and other natural disasters. Recovery is often a slow process and when faced with the loss of home or place of business, taxes are likely the last thing on a person's mind. However, the tax code's rules on casualty losses and disaster relief can be of significant help after a disaster.

Disaster relief

Natural disasters, such as tornados and wild fires, have long been recognized as events giving rise to casualty losses. These events are characterized by their suddenness. A casualty loss must flow from an event that is sudden; it cannot be a gradual event, such as normal wear and tear.

Large scale events are frequently designated as federal disasters. This designation is important. When the federal government designates a locality a federally-declared disaster area, special tax rules about casualty losses and filing/payment deadlines apply.

Casualty losses are generally deductible in the year the casualty occurred. However, taxpayers with casualty losses in a federally-declared disaster area may treat the loss as having occurred in the year immediately prior to the tax year in which the disaster happened. This means the taxpayer can deduct the loss on his or her return for that preceding tax year and possibly generate an immediate refund.

A federal disaster declaration also authorizes the IRS postpone certain deadlines for taxpayers who reside or have a business in the disaster area. The IRS can give taxpayers extra time to file returns. The IRS also waives failure-to-deposit penalties for employment and excise tax deposits. The IRS automatically identifies taxpayers located in the disaster area and applies filing and payment relief. Affected taxpayers who reside or have a business located outside the covered disaster area must contact the IRS to request relief.

Casualty losses

To deduct a casualty loss, a taxpayer must be able to show that there was a casualty. The taxpayer also must be able to support the amount the taxpayer takes as a deduction. It is helpful to take photographs of the property as soon as possible after the disaster. These photographs can be compared to ones taken before the disaster to show the extent of the damage.

A personal casualty loss is generally subject to a $100 floor and to a 10 percent of adjusted gross income (AGI) limitation. Only one $100 floor applies to married taxpayers filing a joint return; married taxpayers filing separate returns are each subject to a $100 floor. If a casualty loss takes place within a presidentially declared disaster area, taxpayers are also given the option of filing an amended return for the year before the disaster, taking the loss on that return, and thereby qualifying for an immediate tax refund to the extent that the loss lowers tax liability. The immediate extra cash provided by the refund often helps the taxpayer rebuild quickly where insurance recovery does not cover the entire cost. While this option is usually beneficial, a particular taxpayer's tax position may point to a greater tax savings if the casualty loss deduction is taken in the current year instead.

Special rules

Special casualty loss rules apply to business or income-producing property. Taxpayers with business or income-producing property that is completely destroyed calculate their loss by subtracting any insurance or other reimbursement they receive or expect to receive along with any salvage value from their adjusted basis in the property.

Personal-use real property is also subject to special rules. Taxpayers who suffer damage to personal property (non-real property) also must meet different criteria.

Taxpayers in certain disaster areas, such as the Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone, may also be eligible for enhanced disaster relief. Several years ago, Congress enacted national disaster relief that provided for bonus depreciation, expanded expensing and other provisions. However, this national disaster relief has expired for most taxpayers.

If you have any questions about disaster relief, please contact Doeren Mayhew.

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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