Tax Court Accepts IRS Method for Determining Gambling Wins and Losses

The Tax Court held in a memorandum decision released Monday that taxpayers who were casual gamblers recognized wins or losses when they redeemed their tokens and that they could not net their wins and losses across the year ( Shollenberger , TC Memo 2009-306).

In this decision, the court accepted the IRS’ methodology for determining wagering gains and losses, which the Office of Chief Counsel put forth in a legal memorandum in 2008 (AM 2008-011).

The taxpayers in the case were a married couple who gambled occasionally at a casino in the small town of Charles Town, W.Va. On March 29, 2005, the husband hit a $2,000 jackpot at a dollar slot machine. The couple continued gambling and lost $400 from the jackpot; they left the casino that day with $1,600 in winnings. They did not report any gambling income on their tax return for 2005, and the IRS issued a deficiency notice for $2,000 in unreported gambling winnings.

IRC § 165(d) states that “losses from wagering transactions shall be allowed only to the extent of the gains from such transactions” but does not provide a technical definition of the terms “gains” and “losses.” As AM 2008-011 explains, the term “transactions” in section 165(d) could mean every single play in a game of chance or every wager made. That interpretation would require a taxpayer to calculate the gain or loss on every transaction separately and treat every play or wager as a taxable event and also to trace and recompute the basis through all transactions to calculate the result of each play or wager.

Because that method would be “unduly burdensome,” the IRS legal memo allows a casual gambler to recognize a wagering gain or loss at the time he or she redeems tokens.

At trial, the IRS conceded that under that method, the taxpayers should have reported $1,100 in gambling winnings rather than the $2,000 in the deficiency notice. According to the court, the lesser amount would be calculated as follows: $2,000 in jackpot winnings minus $500 in wagering money originally brought into the casino by the taxpayers minus the $400 lost by the taxpayers after the jackpot that day.

The taxpayers argued that they should be allowed to offset their gambling winnings with $2,264 of other gambling losses that they claimed to have incurred in 2005. Because section 165(d) uses the term “transactions,” the court held that the taxpayers could not net their gains and losses throughout the year. Instead, the court accepted the IRS’ treatment of transactions as occurring when the gambler cashes in his or her tokens at the end of play and held the taxpayers to have $1,100 of unreported gross income for the year.

According to the court, to allow the taxpayers to net gains and losses throughout the year would defeat the purpose of IRC § 63, under which losses of casual gamblers are allowable only as itemized deductions.

For more on IRS legal memorandum AM 2008-011, see Beavers, “ IRS Issues Guidance on Determining Wagering Gains and Losses ,” 40 The Tax Adviser 129 (February 2009).


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