Friday, September 17, 2010

Silly Sarah

Consider Sarah Lesher, who had had a couple of appalling encounters with the IRS, partly because she didn’t adequately prepare.

From 1976 to 1980, Sarah worked for Yale as a research associate and computer programmer. When she learned of a publisher of travel guides in need of information for a revised edition of an African travel guide, she contacted the publisher and received information regarding the submission of articles.

Sarah traveled to Africa in October 1980 and then to Israel in January 1981. While in Israel, apparently to gather information for writing, the Weizmann Institute employed her as a computer programmer. During 1981 she bought a typewriter and wrote at least one draft of a fictional work based on her adventures while in Africa and Israel. She didn’t keep any type of business accounting records of her writing activities. Nope, Sarah thought she could get by without debits or credits or other financial or non-financial records.

My friend Doug, longing to deduct the costs of going to Vietnam to get photographs of unique motorcycle use to create a picture book, might want to pay attention to this case as an example of what not to do.

In September 1981, Sarah left Israel for Europe and then returned to the United States at the end of November. During 1981 she incurred a total of $9,847.13 in expenses connected with her travels. She deducted this amount on Schedule C of her 1981 Federal income tax return.

Again in 1982, Sarah traveled to Africa, possibly for writing materials, and there resumed working as a computer programmer. In April 1983, she returned to the United States where she continued her education and again worked as a computer programmer.

Sarah lacked experience writing any type of literary work prior to her trip. Further, she didn’t publish or sell anything she wrote with respect to her travels before her Tax Court trial. By then she still hadn’t engaged a literary agent to help her to publish. (It doesn’t appear that the Tax Court knows how difficult it is to get a literary agent.)

Silly Sarah didn’t ever show the court that she had traveled to Africa, Israel, and Europe to write, or that she had remained in Israel in 1981 to author works that could make money. The court said that Sarah used her fiction manuscript as a pretext to claim her travel as a tax deduction. Essentially, the court said that Sarah’s fiction was a fiction.

While Sarah introduced several hundred exhibits, including a copy of a draft of her novel—it makes one wonder how that impacted her copyright—correspondence and information concerning the accomplishments of her ancestors, friends, and acquaintances, her personal life, her activities for many years before and after the years in issue, and even the backgrounds of various authors, the court still said that Sarah used her draft novel as window-dressing to support claims for travel expense deductions.

“Preparation precedes power.” Remember that axiom. Prepare to be a better artisan and to address every IRS concern by studying your expression activity’s accepted business, economic, and scientific practices, or by consulting its experts.