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Tax Toolbox


Doing your taxes can be less frustrating, less time-consuming and less costly if you're prepared.

9 weirdest tax write-offs

Did you hear the one about the ostrich? The sperm donor? The dog food?

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They're just three of the more ingenious tax deductions that creative Americans have devised over the years to counterpunch the tax collector. A quick Ali shuffle, a feint with the left and an outlandish deduction delivered with a straight face can take the sting out of the annual tax beating -- at least until the Internal Revenue Service catches on.

Taxes, of course, are no laughing matter. Serious consequences await those who fail to file, falsely file, knowingly underreport or otherwise throw spitballs at the system. Just ask Willie Nelson, who lost the best little golf course in Texas to back taxes.

Still, every year Americans try to shave what they owe on their personal income tax returns by pushing the envelope and letting their certified public accountant make the line calls.

"If you're going to be aggressive, deductions are where you're going to do it. You're not going to do it in the area of income; you want to report all your income," says Frank Howard, CPA and principal of Howard and Waltrip in Dallas. "I go ahead and apply the smell test. Most of the time, they're just throwing everything up against the wall to see if it sticks."

Old argument invalidated
As any accountant will tell you, the rewards of cheating on your taxes are never worth the risk. And even if you find a tax pro willing to push the limits, the Treasury Department says when it comes to "potentially abusive" tax moves, the old "my tax adviser said it was OK" argument will no longer work.

"We are raising the stakes for taxpayers who fail to disclose potentially abusive transactions to the IRS," stated Treasury Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Pam Olson in announcing the tougher rule. "Too many tax advisers have counseled clients against disclosing their transactions with the expectation that the advisers' opinions will allow the clients to avoid penalties."

By removing that argument, tax officials now believe taxpayers' risk-to-reward calculations will be more judicious, eliminating what Olson describes as "inappropriate tax-avoidance transactions."

Still, it's a good bet that as the April deadline approaches, many taxpayers will do -- or at least try -- the darndest things. Here are nine of the funniest, though not recommended, tax-trimming attempts that clients have taken to CPAs across the country.

My son, my dog
Disc jockeys typically don't make much money and save even less. A few years ago, one approached Wyoming CPA Mike Lovelett for some free advice.

"I've got this problem, and I'm really starting to get nervous about it," the DJ said. "Several years ago, I was going to owe some tax, so I put an extra deduction on my tax return."

Well, reasoned Lovelett, managing director of Lovelett, Skogen & Associates in Casper, it couldn't be that bad. Then the DJ explained: "I put my dog on as a dependent." The radio personality had deducted his dog Red all these years, allowing him to escape owing the IRS on those particular returns.

But, unfortunately for the DJ and all other pet owners, claiming a dog or cat or any other furry family member is definitely disallowed by the tax laws.

Sex and the city
Then there was the client who approached Manhattan CPA Marc Albaum about a very personal tax matter. "He had made some money being a sperm donor and wanted to know if he could take a depletion allowance," Albaum recalls. "I told him he really needed to be an oil well or something like that."

-- Updated: March 22, 2006
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