The Tax Code doesn’t treat casual gamblers very well. On the one hand the odds are stacked against you winning (those fancy casinos were built on losers, not winners). And on the other hand winning can be worse than losing when the taxman gets a hold on you.
Recent tax law changes turned a bad situation worse. The higher standard deduction means fewer people will benefit from deducting gambling losses since you need enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction before the gambling losses reduce your tax liability.
Then we have issues with state tax returns. If the federal tax return doesn’t treat casual gamblers with respect, state tax returns can be down right rude. Wisconsin, for example, doesn’t allow any gambling losses against wins as an itemized deduction: if you lose, you lose; if you win, you lose.
Before we explore strategies for deducting gambling losses we need to review the rules as they stand.
Gambling Wins and Losses on a Tax Return
Gambling wins are reported on the front page of Form 1040 for tax years 2017 and prior. Gambling wins are reported on Schedule 1, Line 21 for tax year 2018.
All gambling wins are required to be reported even if the casino doesn’t report the win to the IRS. Gambling wins are reported on a W-2G for:
- bingo or slot wins of $1,200 or more (not reduced by the wager),
- $1,500 or more (reduced by the wager) for Keno, or
- $5,000 or more (reduced by the wager or buy-in) for poker,
There are certain instances where a W-2G is issued for other gambling winnings of $600 or more.
Losses are allowed as an itemized deduction dollar for dollar against the gain. Gambling losses cannot be greater than gambling wins for the tax year.
Example: John wins $23,500 during the year playing slots and other casino games. His gambling losses are $37,900. John reports his $23,500 of wins on Schedule 1 and $23,500 as an itemized deduction on Schedule A. The additional losses are not deductible. If John doesn’t have any other itemized deductions and is married he is better off taking the $24,000 standard deduction. He derives no additional benefit from the gambling losses while he pays tax on the wins.
When it comes to state taxes some states do not allow any gambling losses, even against gambling wins. This creates a unique situation. In Wisconsin, for example, you can win a million dollar jackpot and go on a gambling spree losing it all and end up with a huge state income tax bill because none of the losses can offset the win. For federal you would report the income and deduct the losses on Schedule A; very little additional tax, if any, would result on the federal tax return.
Gambling wins reported on Form 1040 can cause other serious tax issues even if you can deduct losses on Schedule A. Many credits are affected by adjusted gross income. Losses are deducted further down the return so gambling wins can reduce or eliminate:
- Education credits,
- the Earned Income Credit, and
- the Premium Tax Credit
In addition to lost credits, gambling wins can reduce or eliminate:
- IRA deductions or Roth contributions allowed
- Passive Activity losses, and
- affect the Alternative Minimum Tax
And if this isn’t enough, your Social Security benefits could be taxed more and Medicare premiums pushed higher.
The above lists are not inclusive either! The tax issues from a gambling win can hurt you in many more ways.
But there is a solution to all the tax pain.
When you consider the tax implications of a casino win you might want to think twice about gambling. While I’m not a fan of gambling, since it isn’t conducive to financial independence, I still understand some people enjoy casino games as a form of entertainment. A certain accountant once tried his hand at card counting to reasonable success.
I’m not here to judge. If you gamble I want to assure you have the best information to reduce your taxes on wins.
The basic tax rules above (report all gains and itemize losses to the extent of gains) are valid, but there is a better way. Enter gambling sessions.
The IRS in 2008, and later clarified in 2015, created rules for deducting gambling losses called gambling sessions.
The idea was a gambling win wasn’t really a true win until the session was completed. The Tax Court ruled it is impractical to record each and every wager (pull of the lever, deal of the cards or throw of the dice) and therefore wins and losses can be tabulated for each gambling session versus each hand of cards played, et cetera.
A gambling session starts when you make your first wager of the day for a specific type of game and ends when the last wager of the day is made on the same type of game.
Gamblers need to take extra caution not to mix different types of wagers when calculating sessions. Slot machines are different from blackjack, blackjack different from poker, and poker different from craps.
Example: You play slots in the morning and take a break for lunch and return to the one-armed bandit. This is still the same session.
Example: You play slots for an hour and then move to craps. The slots and craps wagers are different sessions. If you later return to slots the same day you are still on that day’s slots session.
Tax Tip: IRS guidance says a gambling session ends when the clock strikes midnight. This is somewhat true. Playing late into the evening could cause two separate sessions in the same sitting. You can choose to use a calendar day or any 24 hour period as long as it is consistent. Consistency is the key. You can call a day from noon to noon the next day or 5 p.m. to 5 p.m. the next day. Your day should be consistent for the entire year for all gambling sessions.
Extra Gambling Deductions
Let’s use a live example to illustrate the valuable deductions allowed with sessions and an extra deduction for losses not allowed by sessions.
The above sessions log is for a casual gambler who had four sessions throughout 2017. For calculating a session you can use your starting “money in” and netting your “money out” at the end of the session to determine your gain or loss for the session. Inside each session large wins could exist. For example, on February 2nd John may have won a $12,000 jackpot and received a W-2G, but by the end of the session he had only $700 left for a net $200 sessions gain.
John will report $900 of gains on his tax return regardless the gains inside a single session. Losses are not allowed against gains for between sessions.
The $900 gain will end up on Schedule 1 (Form 1040) and will be subject to tax and may affect other deductions and credits on the return. You can also deduct $900 of the additional losses on Schedule A if you itemize! (The $900 sessions gains on Form 1040 can be still be deducted from other losses on Schedule A.) The sessions will always break even (unlikely) or net out as a gain because losses are not allowed between sessions. But unused losses from sessions can be deducted on Schedule A against session gains.
Reporting Sessions Without Getting Audited
Reporting gambling sessions can cause a problem with the IRS computers and cause an unwanted envelope arriving in your mailbox.
Remember when we said you could have a gambling session with a $200 gain (February 2nd above)? Well, inside that small gain could exist a large gain with a W-2G issued. If you only report a $200 gain when the IRS has W-2Gs showing thousands in wins you will get a bill for the difference.
Yes, in the above example only $900 of gains are reportable. But you need to tell the IRS computer what it wants to hear. You could always attach a statement to the return, but the IRS computer may not pick it up before a nasty gram goes out or a full audit triggered.
The best way to handle this is by modifying your sessions reporting on the tax return. Let’s assume the February 2nd session above contained a $10,000 win. Your log will read exactly as above if those are your “money in” and “money out” numbers. But you will report the February 2nd W-2G gain of $10,000 and $9800 of “money in” called gambling losses on the return for a net of $200 again.
Let me see if I can make this clearer.
When I prepare a tax return I enter all the W-2Gs first. This tells the IRS computer I didn’t miss any gambling wins. Then I go the the client’s log and net the difference to arrive at the correct answer.
I still attach the log to the return. This nips an audit before it begins. The attached log allows an auditor to reconcile your sessions without opening a full audit, saving you time and aggravation.
The thing to remember is that your gambling sessions bottom line must be accurate. Adjustments sometimes need to be made so the IRS computers don’t start smoking.
From the above example you can combine all sessions when reporting on the tax return. (Still attach your sessions log to verify the reported sessions gains.)
Let’s assume for our final example that John started with $500 on February 2nd, won a $10,000 jackpot and kept playing until he had only $700 left. The other sessions had no W-2G wins.
Here is how I’d report John’s sessions on his tax return:
- Gambling Income: $10,000
- Gambling Sessions Losses: $9,100
The tax return only needs this one simple combined sessions reporting to arrive at the correct $900 of gambling gains. Remember to deduct the excess allowed on Schedule A (losses up to total gains not reduced by sessions losses).
Gambling can be exciting and fun. Winning is best of all. Just make sure you don’t pay a penny more in tax than you have to. The deck is already stacked against you by the IRS and casino. Don’t throw your winnings away, too.
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