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Do you like to gamble? Do you ever win? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” you need to know about deducting your gambling losses.
All gambling winnings are taxable income—that is, income that is subject to both federal and state income taxes (except for the seven states that have no income taxes). It makes no difference how you earn your winnings, whether at a casino, gambling website, Church raffle, or your friendly neighborhood poker game.
It also makes no difference where you win: whether at a casino or other gambling establishment in the United States (including those on Indian reservations), in a foreign country such as Mexico or Aruba, on a cruise ship, Mississippi river boat, or at a gambling website hosted outside the U.S. As far as the IRS is concerned, a win is a win and must be included on your tax return.
If, like the vast majority of people, you’re a recreational gambler, you’re supposed to report all your gambling winnings on your tax return every year. You may not, repeat NOT, subtract your losses from your winnings and only report the amount left over, if any. You’re supposed to report every penny you win, even if your losses exceeded your winnings for the year.
Fortunately, although you must list all your winnings on your tax return, you don’t have to pay tax on the full amount. You are allowed to list your annual gambling losses as an itemized deduction on Schedule A of your tax return. If you lost as much as, or more than, you won during the year, you won’t have to pay any tax on your winnings. Even if you lost more than you won, you may only deduct as much as you won during the year.
However, you get no deduction for your losses at all if you don’t itemize your deductions—just one of the ways gamblers are badly treated by the tax laws.
As the above rules should make clear, you must list both your total annual gambling winnings and losses on your tax return. If you’re audited, your losses will be allowed by the IRS only if you can prove the amount of both your winnings and losses. You’re supposed to do this by keeping detailed records of all your gambling wins and losses during the year. This is where most gamblers slip up—they fail to keep adequate records (or any records at all). As a result, you can end up owing taxes on winnings reported to the IRS even though your losses exceed your winnings for the year.
This has happened to many gamblers who failed to keep records. For example, Bill Remos, a Coca-Cola delivery driver in Chicago, gambled for fun and got lucky: He won $50,000 in a single game of blackjack. When Remos filed his taxes for the year he didn’t report the $50,000 win as income. Why? He knew he had at least $50,000 in gambling losses during the year. He subtracted his losses from his winnings and ended up with zero; so he figured he didn’t have any gambling income to list on his return. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Not to the IRS. Remos was audited by the IRS. Because he failed to follow the rules and couldn’t document his losses, he had to pay income tax on his entire $50,000 blackjack win. He ended up owing the IRS $17,000 in back taxes. This on an annual income of only $32,000!
Gambling is a cash business, so how will the IRS know how much you won during the year? Unfortunately for gamblers, casinos, race tracks, state lotteries, bingo halls, and other gambling establishments located in the United States are required to tell the IRS if you win more than a specified dollar amount. They do this by filing a tax form called Form W2-G with the IRS. You’re given a copy of the form as well. When a W2-G must be filed depends on the type of game you play. For example, the casino must file a W2-G if you win $1,200 or more playing slots; but only if you win $1,500 or more at keno. Thus, if you have one or more wins exceeding the reporting threshold, the IRS will know that you earned at least that much gambling income during the year. If this income is not listed on your tax return, you’ll likely hear from the IRS.
If you gamble full-time to earn a living, you may qualify as a professional gambler for tax purposes. Professional gamblers inhabit a different tax universe than those who gamble for fun. In general, gambling pros are treated better by the IRS than amateurs, but few people qualify as gambling professionals.