Gambling winnings are taxable



You’re supposed to report anything you win as income.  It goes on line 21 of Form 1040.  (You can’t use form 1040EZ if you have gambling winnings.)  If you win a prize rather than cash, you’re supposed to report the cash value of the prize.

This applies to citizens and permanent residents alike.  Visitors to the U.S. are taxed on slot machine winnings but not on winnings on most kinds of table games. (Forbes, in the comments, and USC § 871(j))

Itemizing Deductions

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 $30,000, and you pay an average of 13% in taxes, then your taxes are $3900.

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 $30,000 in income, and $5000 in deductions, then you have only $25,000 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 (in 2014).  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.

Some losses are deductible

You can deduct your gambling losses, but there are some catches:

You can deduct only as much as you won, not more.  That 꽁머니 means you can never show a net loss for gambling.  For example, if you lose $1000 playing slots, and then win a $400 keno jackpot, you can deduct only $400 of your slot loss.  You’ll pay taxes on $600 of income.

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 what itemizing means.

Nonresident aliens are taxed on slot winnings, but can’t deduct their losses. (Forbes)

Separating wins from losses

You’re supposed to report wins and losses separately.  You do not report the net win for the year.  If you win $1000 and lose $750 in one year, 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. (Nolo) Let’s say you had $500 in session wins and $2000 in session losses (more about sessions later).  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, tax code requires that you report it, even if it was 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 disclosing your wins like you were supposed to, and that’s not a position you want to be in if you get called on the carpet.

Note that if you never had a winning session then 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 session net result.(source)  For example:

May 5:  +$250  Luxor (blackjack) • alone

May 5:  – $100  NY NY (slots) • with wife

May 6:  +$200  Monte Carlo • with wife

May 6:   -$300  Monte Carlo • with Spanky McBluejay

At the end of the year you add up all your session 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.  (sources)

The IRS doesn’t explicitly define what a “session” is, so just use a reasonable definition.  When you take a break for a meal or some other kind of entertainment, or when you cash in your chips, consider your session over.  It’s not clear whether you have to consider your session over if you simply switch games (e.g., slots to blackjack), or if you walk 30 seconds from one casino to the next (like in downtown Vegas where they’re close together), but it couldn’t hurt.  You can have multiple sessions in one day, but a session can’t span more than a day.

Documenting your wins and losses

Make damn sure you can document your losses!  Bill Remos won $50k in a blackjack session, and had at least $50k in losses for the year, so he shouldn’t have owed any taxes, but he couldn’t substantiate his losses, so the IRS made him pay the taxes on his $50k win without letting him deduct any losses to offset his winnings.  Ouch. (Nolo)

So how do you document your losses?  In almost all cases the IRS will accept the diary mentioned above.(source)  You can use win/loss statements that casinos provide at the end of the year as backup evidence to supplement your diary, but not as your main evidence.  As one tax attorney says, “The IRS has consistently and regularly rejected the use and reliance upon such information. The primary reason for the IRS belligerence is simply because the casinos explicitly state in their reports that the reports are inherently inaccurate and should not be used for accounting purposes.” (Reece B. Morrel Jr., CPA JD)  The IRS also likes other supplementary evidence that you were at the casino, such as airline tickets or receipts from casino restaurants and gift shops.

The IRS says your diary should include, at a minimum:

Date and type of specific wager or wagering activity

Name of gambling establishment

Address or location of gambling establishment

Name(s) of other person(s) (if any) present with taxpayer at the gambling establishment

Amount won or lost  (source)

W2-G forms

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 session 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. (sources)

If you had other winnings throughout the year, then you’d record the above session as a $400 session loss, for tallying your total losses for the year in order to offset winnings.

Yes, it’s not fair

There are a number of aspects of the gambling tax that aren’t exactly fair.  Let’s tally them.

Net wins are taxable, but you can’t deduct net losses.  As we saw above, you can’t deduct more than you win.  If you win $1500 and lose $500, you pay tax on $1000 of winnings.  But if you win $500 and lose $1500, you don’t get to claim a $1000 loss.  However, there’s no good way to “fix” this problem: 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.

You can deduct your losses only if you itemize. (For an explanation of “itemizing”, see the sidebar above.)  If you have $2000 in wins and $2000 in losses, you’ll have to itemize on Schedule A in order to deduct your losses.  Of course, if your standard deduction is more than your itemized deductions, you’ll want to go with the standard deduction.  But that means you don’t get to deduct your losses, specifically.  You’re gonna pay taxes on $2000 in winnings with no way to offset it.

Those who would claim that you are deducting your losses as part of your standard deduction are missing this point:  If you didn’t gamble at all, you’d still get to take the full standard deduction.  But by gambling and having wins that equal losses, you still use that same standard deduction, and thus have to pay more taxes compared to not gambling at all  even though you didn’t have a net win.

Gambling losses can’t be carried over from year to year.  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.  So over four years you lost $1000.  However, in year 4 you’ll pay taxes on the $2000 win, and never get any credit for your $3000 in losses for the previous three years.  Too bad.

Reporting wins separately from losses increases your AGI, reducing your ability to make other deductions.  A $5000 yearly win and a $5000 yearly loss means you pay no taxes, but because you report wins separately from losses, your AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) goes up by $5000.  That might be great if you’re trying to get a loan and the bank uses your AGI as your income, but the downside is that you might lose the ability to deduct medical expenses, mortgage interest, and charitable contributions, among other things. (source)

Professional gamblers

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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