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Tax laws keep changing, but don't be the last to know about them. Here's the latest filing scoop.

Tax breaks for casualty, disaster victims

There's no way to plan for a disaster. But there is recovery help from an unexpected source: the Internal Revenue Service.

In this tax tip:

You can count unforeseen casualty losses as itemized deductions. Of course, you have to fill out extra paperwork and keep good records.

And you won't recover dollar for dollar the financial loss you suffered. But every little bit helps. For major disasters, it's usually worth the effort to claim the tax write-off.

What counts as a casualty?
First, your loss must meet IRS deductibility guidelines. The agency classifies a casualty as the damage, destruction or loss of property resulting from a sudden, unexpected or unusual event. The losses can result from natural or man-made disasters. Examples cited in the IRS literature include:

  • Fires
  • Burglaries and thefts
  • Storms, such as ice storms and blizzards
  • Tornadoes
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Earthquakes
  • Vandalism
  • Mudslides
  • Drought (if sudden in nature).

Natural wear and tear isn't a casualty loss. The IRS won't accept claims for lost property, termite damage to your home or the death of your prize elm tree due to disease.

Figuring the deduction amount
After you've established that your loss is allowable, it's time to figure out exactly how much you can deduct. The IRS sets two limits: first you must reduce your loss amount by $100, and the remainder then must be more than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income and is reduced by that 10 percent. You also have to subtract any insurance money you got for the loss.

Taxpayers who suffered losses in last year's hurricane season get an additional break this filing season in computing their deductible loss amount.

You need Form 4684 to figure and report your casualty loss and Schedule A to itemize your loss deduction. Attach both of these to your individual income tax return Form 1040. You don't have to include supporting documents with your return, but you need those records to help you complete Form 4684 and to verify your expenses and losses, if the IRS ever questions the deduction.

Tax result of your loss claim
Then you have to figure out the "real money" value of your deduction. Deductions don't directly translate into tax dollars saved, so a casualty deduction of $5,000 won't get you a five grand refund. Rather, deductions reduce your taxable income. The less taxable income you have, the smaller your tax bill. After you determine your casualty loss deduction, you must refigure your taxes using the new taxable income amount to see just how much of a refund you'll get.

Victims in presidentially declared disasters areas -- regions hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes or other calamities -- get special consideration. In these cases, taxpayers can claim their losses in the tax year the disaster struck, or they can claim it as if it happened the year before.

Many taxpayers find that by filing an amended return and claiming the loss for the previous tax year, they get a bigger refund. This often is the case for individuals who didn't itemize deductions the prior year.

The deadline for choosing this option usually is the due date of a filer's current year return. This means you can file the amended return for the previous year by the filing deadline for the year in which the disaster actually occurred. For example, if in 2006 you suffered a casualty loss due to a Presidentially declared disaster, you can amend your 2005 return up until the current April 17 filing due date to claim the losses in that prior tax year.

Yes, the paperwork is a hassle. But the IRS provides additional details in Publication 547, Casualties, Disasters and Thefts. The agency also has a workbook to help you track your losses, as well as Publication 2194, Disaster Losses Kit for Individuals, which consolidates the tax-related disaster information you'll need.

If you're the victim of a major disaster, claiming your losses on your tax return could help rebuild your property as well as your bank account.

Freelance writer Kay Bell writes Bankrate's tax stories from her home in Austin, Texas, and blogs each day on tax topics at Don't Mess with Taxes.

-- Updated: Feb. 2, 2007
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