Understanding Travel Deductions for Educational Seminars

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If you’re considering going out of town for an educational seminar, you may want to ask yourself a few questions to determine whether the expense is justified[1]. First, is the trip primarily for the purpose of continuing education? If so, how many hours of each day there will actually be spent in educated-related activities? If not, then is the trip part of a vacation or leisure trip?

To deduct your travel for a business-related education seminar or event, you have to show that obtaining business education is the primary reason behind your travel[2]. Not only that, you must also keep in mind that for tax law purposes, the term “travel” refers only to trips that take you out of town long enough to require a stop for sleep[3].

Is the Trip Business or Personal?

Of course, sometimes you combine business and personal time on a trip out-of-town. It would be silly not to take advantage of new sights if you have the opportunity. But, what do you do about deducting expenses in these situations? It’s actually not that difficult.

If your trip otherwise qualifies as a tax deductible business trip, and you take, for example, a three-hour hike through the mountains while you’re there, you can just handle any hiking costs as personal expenses. This does not cancel the validity of your business trip[4]. All you need to do is document which expenditures went towards business events and which were for personal activities.

Matters aren’t much more difficult for personal travel that includes business. If you take a vacation or other personal trip and end up spending a day working on business matters, you treat the travel expenses and the majority of the trip as personal for tax purposes[5]. Then, you keep track of any expenses for the business day and note them as business expenditures. Note: This does not mean you can deduct food and lodging for a day of your vacation because you took a one-hour conference call. But, if you spend a full seven hours of one day trying to work out business issues during your vacation, then you can count that day as business.

If your trip is fairly evenly mixed between business education and personal activities, it may be more difficult to determine whether travel and lodging expenses are deductible. IRS regulations state that the important thing is to weigh the relative amount of time spent to each in order to determine the primary purpose of the trip (in particular, you can look at regulation 1.162-5(e)(1)). Now, look at that last sentence. You will see that time is the determining factor, not importance of the educational activities. The division of time is what the IRS will consider.

Another example may help to clear up how this works. In revenue ruling 84-55, a taxpayer took a trip for educational classes sponsored by his alumni association. The educational meetings only lasted about two hours per day, and the rest of the time he spent with his family. The IRS ruled the trip a family vacation. However, he was allowed to deduct expenses for the cost of the classes. Nothing of the hotel stays, meals, or back and forth travel was allowed to be deducted.

Other cases have been ruled in much the same way (see Holswade[6]). You should understand that if the number of hours spent on business education is minimal, the trip will be considered personal. In this case, you will likely only be able to deduct the costs of the educational course itself. It is only when more than half the day is spent on business that you can consider it so[7].

Time is easy to measure. When you’re going on a mixed-purpose trip, be sure to track your time consistently. This is the only way you have an argument for deducting expenses for lodging, meals, and travel.

How to Document Your Trip

Be aware that the IRS is not going to just take your word for it that you spent more than half your time conducting business. You may be asked to provide documentary evidence of your business activities during the trip. In that case, each of the following items is useful:

  • Receipts—Obviously, you will file all the receipts from your trip. This shows both the business-related expenses and how you paid for them. Tax law absolutely requires that you save receipts and document the business reason for each day (e.g., attending a specific seminar) if expenses exceed $75. Be sure to note what each receipt is for—breakfast, gas, etc.
  • Brochures—Most education seminars will provide an event brochure. Hang on to this, and put it in a folder with other information regarding your travel. This is especially useful if the brochure outlines how the seminar is useful for your business purposes and has a clear outline of benefits.
  • Notes—You may not remember every detail of your outing. This is where taking timely notes comes in handy. Once you are back from your trip, or even better, during the trip, take time to note which activities you took part in for business and how long they lasted. You can also jot notes down on your brochure if it’s not clear how the seminar benefits your business.
  • Travel LogWhat format you use for your log does not matter. What is important is that you have somewhere (a notebook, calendar, or app) that allows you to your activities during your stay. This should include all events that you attend, contacts you meet, and how you otherwise spend your time. You can find several good software applications for this.
  • Summary of Benefits—If you haven’t noted this in any other journal, you may want to outline the benefits you received from the seminar after the trip ends. This allows you to state clearly what you got from the trip and how you will apply it to your business. This works as a supportive document that explains why the travel was business related.

With the proper documentation, you should be able to prove that your trip is eligible for business tax deductions. Just remember the half-day rule and to keep thorough records. A business trip does not have to be “all business,” so relax—figuring out eligible expenses is not all that difficult.

  1. Rev. Rul. 84-55.
  2. Reg. Section 1.162-5(e)(1).
  3. Rev. Rul. 75-168; U.S. v Homer O.Correll (1967, S Ct) 389 US 299; IRS Pub. 463 Travel, Entertainment, Gift, and Car Expenses (2005), p. 3.
  4. Reg. Section 1.162-5(e)(1).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Holswade v Commr., 82 T.C. 686 (1984).
  7. Reg. Section 1.274-4(d)(2)((iii).