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Fact-check: Clown shoes, clarinets and ‘experts’

Jim Hamill

Oscar Wilde said “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Left with only my mediocre ideas for a column, I instead choose to borrow from a few great tax minds.

As a Class A card-carrying tax nerd, I read several monthly publications with names like “The Journal of Taxation.” Today I borrow from the “Shop Talk” section of that publication (I know, too much detail), which I simply adore, a revelation officially making this my column of shame.

The authors of Shop Talk are recognized tax experts. We unfortunately use the term “expert” too often. These authors raise a few questions about “expert” advice given on TV ads for a popular tax software product.

These ads let you know that if you buy the software you will have access to expert tax advice. This advice will prompt you to claim all available deductions. To entice you, the ads give some examples of things you might be missing.

With that introduction, off we go! You can deduct the cost of a clarinet if you play the clarinet to correct an overbite. If you land a job as a hand model (remember Joey’s “hand twin” from “Friends”?) you can deduct the cost of a manicure.

If you use a treehouse as your primary business location you can deduct the cost of internet access in the treehouse. A photographer can deduct the cost of props used for shoots – the example being a cowboy puppet perched on a saddle on a dog.

A circus clown can deduct the cost of size 26 shoes worn in his performances. I almost used “clown shoes” but my wife reminded me that fits most of my foot wardrobe so I decided to be more specific.

All of that is the good news. Now I will do what I do best, which is to place a dark cloud of rain upon someone else’s parade.

We overuse the term “expert.” The term brings a certain sense of guilt if you do not heed the expert’s advice. Surely they know what they are doing.

Once I was driven in a Lincoln Town Car from Chicago’s Midway airport to the western suburbs on icy roads. The driver was loudly complaining that the “idiots” on the road, that is, everyone but him, didn’t know how to drive on ice.

My driver was a professional. I know because he repeatedly told me so as he drove way too fast for the conditions (my formative years were spent driving on snow and ice). So I quickly texted my family the location of my estate documents and financial account passwords.

The trick is in knowing the difference between that professional you can trust and the great unwashed who seem to think just a little too highly about themselves. It’s not easy.

So what about that clarinet? Turns out there is an obscure 1962 IRS ruling that allowed a medical expense deduction for a clarinet. Obscure means fact-specific. In this case an orthodontist suggested a clarinet might help with a congenital and severe defect inflicting a child.

I’m not sure how many clarinetists fit these facts. Even so, medical expenses require that you itemize deductions (less than 10% do) and that the total medical costs exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

The hand model’s manicure is even more suspect. I wrote about haircuts for a TV personality some time ago. Same principle. The treehouse? It must be the principal place of business or a regular meeting place with clients.

The photographer’s props? Well OK, probably deductible. But the Shop Talk authors caught the interesting issue of what the props were. The cowboy puppet? The saddle? The dog? The ad never said.

The clown has the best case for a deduction. Not even Shaquille O’Neal wears a size 26. So the shoe is not suitable for ordinary wear.

But even our clown loses his deduction if he is not self-employed. Same for the photographer, the tree dweller and the hand model.

If it’s your tax return you are responsible for it. Be wary of who you accept as an expert. If it sounds too good to be true, perhaps it is.

Jim Hamill is the director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque. He can be reached at jimhamill@rhcocpa.com.

 

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