Tax Tips for Entrepreneurs and Business Owners – Part 1: The Business Vehicle Expense Deduction

As 2014 draws to a close, taxpayers should begin reviewing their annual income and expenses in preparation for filing required income tax returns and paying tax due. Importantly, entrepreneurs and small business owners should be especially diligent in this process, as there are numerous audit traps for the unwary Schedule C filer. This is the first in a series of articles that will highlight a few of the frequent federal tax audit issues for business owners, and provide some tips for avoiding federal tax compliance problems. This article focuses on the business automobile expense deduction as a potential pitfall for the unfamiliar, and offers tips for compliance.

Business Vehicle Expense Deduction 

Awareness of some typical audit traps is key to ensuring federal tax compliance, especially for entrepreneurs and start-ups who may be new to properly accounting for deductible expenses. One frequently audited area is the business automobile expense deduction. Costs associated with a business owner’s use of a vehicle for business purposes are tax-deductible, which is a very helpful savings tool. But, the federal tax rules for deducting business related automobile expenses are specific, making compliance difficult for many.

There are two methods for claiming deductible business vehicle expenses:

  1. Actual Expenses, Plus Depreciation Method. The business owner must record and document all deductible automobile-related expenses incurred for the business vehicle during the year. The following costs are deductible in proportion to the amount of business miles driven: gas, oil, repairs, tires, insurance, registration fees, licenses, and depreciation (or lease payments). Additionally, all business-related tolls and parking fees are deductible.
  2. Standard Mileage Rate Method. The business owner may deduct a percentage  (the standard mileage rate) of each business mile driven, plus all business-related tolls and parking fees. For 2014, the standard mileage rate is 56 cents per business mile travelled.

There are very specific rules that determine which of the above business vehicle expense deduction methods are available to a particular business owner. Certain facts and circumstances trigger different rules.

For instance, to qualify to use the standard mileage method, a business owner must utilize that method in the first year the vehicle is used in business activity. Additionally, the standard mileage deduction is not available to business owners who have used accelerated depreciation in prior years, or expensed the vehicle under Section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code. Moreover, only business-use mileage is tax-deductible, meaning proper business-to-personal mileage allocation is essential for a vehicle that is used for both purposes. Importantly, these examples are not exclusive. So, it is important to consult with your tax attorney and accountant before implementing a particular business vehicle expense deduction method for your business.

Biz&TaxHax Tips: Regardless of which deduction method a business owner uses, one thing is certain: documentation is king in surviving an audit. The best way to properly document business automobile expenses to support deduction is to maintain a detailed mileage log (listing the date, business purpose, departure location, destination, mileage, and before and after vehicle odometer reading) and records of actual expenses (invoices, receipts and proof of payment for: gasoline, oil changes, maintenance and repairs, tires, etc.) for each vehicle used in the business for the year. This way, it is less likely that you will make any mistakes in claiming deductible automobile expenses on your tax return and you will be in a much better position to show that your return was accurate, if audited.

An experienced tax lawyer can help you determine which deduction method is available and best for your business, and assist with keeping the required documentation to support the deduction. If you are a Columbus or Ohio entrepreneur or small business owner and need help preparing for tax return filing season and planning for the future, contact me for a free initial consultation.

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