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Gambling & Taxes (U.S. income tax)
I'm a layperson, not a tax expert. I believe everything here is correct, but it's always prudent to check with a tax specialist about tax questions.
|Have you never really
understood what it means to "itemize deductions"? Then let's
clear that up right now.
We all know that we pay taxes on our income. If you make $20,000, and you pay 13% in taxes, then your taxes are $2600.
You can subtract out certain expenses to make your income lower, so you pay less taxes. Those special expenses are called deductions. If you had $20,000 in income, and $5000 in deductions, then you have only $15,000 in income that's subject to tax. So now your tax is a lot less.
The reason we say deductions and not expenses is that only some expenses are deductible. For example, food and rent are big expenses, but you don't get to deduct them. So they're not deductions. Deductions are things like medical & dental expenses, and gifts to charity.
Keeping track of all your deductions can be a chore, so the IRS gives you a shortcut. They let you take a "standard deduction". For example, if you're single, they let you claim a standard deduction of about $6000. You don't have to keep track of anything, you just use $6000 as your deduction, even if your actual expenses were more or less. This makes things very easy. You get to pick this standard deduction on Line 40 of Form 1040.
But if you have a lot more than $6000 in deductions, then it makes sense to claim your actual expenses and skip the $6000 grab-bag. You list these expenses on Schedule A of Form 1040. When you use Schedule A to list your expenses instead of taking the standard deduction, then you're itemizing your deductions. So there you have it, that's what "itemizing your deductions" means.
You can deduct your gambling losses, but there are some catches:
- You can deduct only as much as you won, not more. So if you lose $1000 playing slots, and then win a $400 keno jackpot, you can deduct only $400.
- You can't carry over losses from one year to the next. You report wins and losses for the current year only.
- You can deduct only if you're itemizing your deductions. See the sidebar at right for an explanation of itemizing.
Right away we can see that this isn't exactly fair. You always pay taxings on your winnings, but only sometimes can you deduct your losses. However, there's not a good alternative. If the IRS let you deduct 100% of your losses, gambling would effectively be cheaper, and the government would basically be giving people a huge incentive to gamble. So it's understandable that this part of the code isn't perfectly fair.
Here's another example of inequity. Let's say you lose $1000 a year for three years by playing slots. Then in Year 4 you have a net win of $2000. You pay taxes on the $2000 win, but you never got any credit for your $3000 in losses for the previous three years. Too bad.
You're supposed to report wins and losses separately. You do not report the net win. If you win $1000 and lose $750, you don't report a $250 win. You report a $1000 win and a $750 loss. Wins go on 1040 Line 21, and losses go on Schedule A.
If your losses exceed your wins, you won't owe any tax, but you're still supposed to report your wins and losses separately. Let's say you won $500 playing blackjack and lost $2000 playing slots. From the above you know that you can't deduct more than you won, so you have $500 in wins and a $500 loss deduction. Since that's basically a wash, you might be tempted to not even report it at all. It doesn't affect how much taxes you pay, so what's the point?
The point is that if you had winnings, it's illegal to not report it, even if they were entirely offset by losses. If the IRS later finds that you had some gambling winnings, it's kind of late in the game for you to claim that you had losses that offset your wins. You already look a little guilty for not reporting like you were supposed to. You're certainly entitled to present your losses after you get called on the carpet, but wouldn't it be better if you weren't called on the carpet in the first place?
Note that if you had only losses there's no duty to report. There's nothing to deduct anyway, because you can deduct losses only to the extent of your winnings.
But all this raises the question: How do you keep track of wins and losses? Let's say you're playing a slot machine. Is every spin with no payout a "loss", and every spin with a payout a "win"? How could anyone keep track of all that?
You can't, but you don't have to. The IRS suggests keeping a diary of your daily net result. For example:
- May 5: +$250 Luxor (blackjack)
- May 6: - $100 NY NY (slots)
- May 7: +$200 Monte Carlo (video poker)
- May 8: -$300 Monte Carlo (craps)
At the end of the year you add up all your daily wins and count that as your winnings, and you total up all your daily losses and count that as your losses. In the above example, we'd report $450 in winnings and $400 in losses.
Note that the IRS says your diary should also include the names of any people present with you.
Most casinos will provide a tax statement for you at the end of the year, which shows the total of your daily wins and the total of your daily losses, provided you used your players card when you played (and you should). However, given that such statements usually have the word "Estimate" written all over them, as well as other prominent disclaimers, it's not a bad idea to keep your own daily records.
If you hit for $1200 or more on a slot machine (or $600 at the horse track, or $1500 in keno), then the casino will give you a W2-G form. They'll ask you for your social security number, so don't freak out when they do. They'll send a copy to the IRS, too. This $1200 threshold for slots is why you'll see many machines with a top jackpot of $1199. If you hit it, then neither you nor the casino has to fuss with the W2-G form.
You get the W2-G only for single wins of $1200+. If you have many small wins that total more than $1200, you don't get the form. You're still supposed to report those winnings, but you don't get the form.
You never get a W2-G for playing table games. It's only for slots, races, and keno. However, if you buy or cash more than $10,000 in chips in one day, the casino will do a CTR (Cash Transaction Report) form for the IRS.
Note that you don't report the actual W2-G amounts on your tax return. You report your winnings, which is not the same thing as what's shown on the W2-G. Let's say you play slots all day, hit three jackpots of $1500 each, but have a net loss for the day of $400. That's also the only gambling you did for the year. How much do you report in winnings? Nothing. Despite the three $1500 jackpots, you didn't have an overall daily win, so there are no winnings to report.
Professional gamblers can deduct all their gambling losses as a business expense, on Schedule C. Their losses are not limited by their winnings. So if they had a losing year, they can deduct more than they won. Of course, if you're a professional gambler you already know this, and if you're not, you have virtually no chance of convincing the IRS that you are one.
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