June 12, 2015

In the last thirty years, gambling has changed its image from a quasi-legal activity to a major player in the economy. The IRS has responded accordingly, now requiring gambling winnings to be reported as a source of income, with losses deductible only to the extent of winnings. Even a professional gambler cannot generate a loss with gambling losses. (IRC section 165(d).) (If you win a prize in a drawing, that does not count as  “gambling.” It is reported on 1099-MISC, and other rules apply.)

If you are fortunate enough to win $1200 in a jackpot at a slot machine, $1500 from keno, $5000 from a poker tournament, or $600 or more from “other” gambling winnings, then the casino will record your Social Security Number and the amount of the win, and write it off as an expense. Casinos offer a win-loss statement for their slot players that itemizes coin-in and coin-out, but vary in their player-tracking policies for other types of play. The casino will give you a copy of the gambling win, on Form W-2G and send a copy to the IRS. The IRS will use this gross figure as increased ordinary income unless you can indicate losses against this win. Senior citizens beware: the amount indicated on line 21 of Form W-2G will potentially make more of your Social Security benefits taxable!

The traditional place to declare gambling losses is on Schedule A under miscellaneous deductions, but there are problems with doing it this way. First, you must “qualify” to itemize deductions on Schedule A.  For Schedule A to do you any good, your deductions must be greater than what you would receive as the standard deduction.

Let us say that you are single, so your standard deduction for 2014 is $6,200. If your allowable itemized deductions total less than this amount, then filing a Schedule A won’t benefit you. However, if you have sufficient mortgage interest, real estate taxes or charitable contributions to justify itemizing your deductions, then declaring a $1200 loss on Schedule A will help to offset the $1200 win.

If you don’t qualify for a Schedule A, or if you want to report less than what appears on line 21 of Form W-2G , then you have significantly more bookkeeping to do. All winnings, not just W-2G winnings, are reportable. Therefore, you must maintain a day-to-day diary that itemizes ALL of your winnings and losses per session, not just amounts of $1200 and over. The diary, similar to a tip diary, must be credible. It’s a good idea to back it up with bank records, ATM slips, and casino win-loss statements.

If you travel to gambling resorts once or twice a year, be prepared to keep a log of your winnings and losses per trip. As you arrive at your resort or hotel, make a dated note of your “buy in”, the amount of cash that you brought along to play with. When you check out of the hotel or resort, make a note of your “win” (or loss). This is considered the end of your gambling session.

If you live in a gambling city such as Reno or Las Vegas, then there is technically no way to delineate a gambling session, since slot machines are available in supermarkets and convenience stores 24 hours a day, as well as in bars and restaurants. If you are reporting less than the amount of winnings reported on Forms W-2G, be prepared for an IRS letter or an audit, and have all of the records required for a day-to-day record of wins and losses.  You should also be aware of various state laws that may vary from federal requirements. In such cases, it’s a smart strategy to have a tax professional assist you with the reportable figure. This option will require conforming to the situation in the court case Shollenberger v. Commissioner T.C. memo 2009-306, as referenced in The Tax Book, by Tax Materials , Inc.

Don’t expect casinos to proactively withhold any portion of your winnings for tax purposes unless state law requires it. Most state laws do not. Exceptions include foreign winners or other special circumstances.

There are two obvious reasons casinos won’t voluntarily place tax withholdings on your gambling winnings:

  1.      Withholding creates added administration paperwork
  2.      Withholding disrupts the flow of business (if the money is withheld, then you won’t lose it back)

You can request that money be withheld from your winnings (perhaps based on your marginal tax rate or higher) at the time of the payoff. But you should not request withholding if your winnings come from the casino where you work. (Some states and casinos allow casino workers to gamble where they work; others do not.) However you go about doing so, having tax withholdings from gambling winnings can potentially save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars at tax time.