Last month, first lady Michelle Obama kicked up a surprising amount of controversy when she suggested that mothers be encouraged to breast-feed their children. The remark probably would have gone unnoticed had it not been for a concurrent addition to the tax code allowing parents to deduct breast pumps as a medical expense.
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While it's not clear why anyone would object to the new rule (breast feeding has been around, well, forever), the dust-up did highlight the hundreds of myriad ways that taxpayers can reduce their tax burden by itemizing deductions.
Many of the most common deductions are well-known -- for instance, most people realize that you can deduct the interest paid on your mortgage, donations to charity or even moving costs. But few people realize just how many ways the system can be tweaked to score a deduction.
We pored over the tax code to find some unexpected deductions, and spoke to tax experts to find out how a creative interpretation of the tax code can get you some strange but budget-friendly deductions. Here are a few of our favorites.
Weight Loss (Sometimes)
As with any medical expense, this one can get tricky come tax season. As a general rule, costs associated with a weight-loss program are only deductible if there's a medical justification. To quote the Internal Revenue Service, "You can include in medical expenses amounts you pay to lose weight if it is a treatment for a specific disease diagnosed by a physician (such as obesity, hypertension, or heart disease)." Lap-band surgery, which is only used in cases of health-threatening obesity, is also deductible.
But there are limits: Your doctor might suggest that you start eating healthier, but that doesn't mean you can start deducting the cost of vegetables, says Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst for the Tax Institute at H&R Block.
Visiting a Christian Science Practitioner
In another twist on the deductions you can claim for medical expenses, the tax code evidently takes a fairly broad view of what constitutes treatment. Christian Scientists, who don't believe in conventional medical treatments, may deduct the cost of treatment by a Christian Science Practitioner. Given that these practitioners do all their healing through the power of prayer, it's a bit odd that this would be classified as a medical treatment, but we're not about to begrudge anyone their belief system -- or a tax deduction.
Most dog owners won't be able to deduct the cost of puppy chow, but there are two ways to get a tax deduction on pet-related expenses. The first is to have a seeing-eye dog or other service animal -- it's essentially considered a medical device (albeit a cute, furry and loving one), so all costs for buying, training and feeding the animal are deductible.
The other pet-related deduction offered is for a guard dog for your business, which can be deducted as a business expense. The actual purchase of a dog isn't deductible, but training and feeding it is. "If your business uses that dog for protection, that meets the definition of a business purpose," says Bob Meighan, vice president at TurboTax.
The IRS says that "unnecessary cosmetic surgery" cannot be deducted from your tax bill, but there are always exceptions. For one, survivors of breast cancer who have had a mastectomy may deduct the cost of breast reconstruction, as it constitutes a medical expense.
Meanwhile, breast augmentation for non-medical purposes can also be deducted if there's a business angle. Rob Seltzer, a certified public accountant who operates a private practice in Beverly Hills, recalls the story of an exotic dancer who was able to claim her breast enlargement as a business expense.
Seltzer recalls helping a client who had sustained severe neck and back injuries while playing racquetball. "The doctor said the only way for him to be active was to swim, so we built a lap pool and deducted it," he says.
Of course, you'll need to make sure you have the backing of a physician when you make a medical deduction like this; Meighan notes that if the IRS contests the deduction and you wind up in tax court, your doctor may be called upon to explain why it was medically necessary. In other words, don't think you can get away with conspiring with your doctor to score a tax-deductible pool.
Your Clown Costume
Jackie Perlman says that H&R Block's tax preparers are frequently asked whether clothing purchased for work is tax deductible. And usually the answer is no -- even if you never wear suits outside the office, the suit you had to buy for your corporate job isn't tax deductible because it's not considered a uniform.
"The key word is 'uniform' or 'costume' -- something not normally suited to street wear," says Perlman. So if you work as a clown and the cost of buying and maintaining your clown suit exceeds 2.5% of your adjusted gross income (the standard for business expenses), you can claim a deduction.