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The IRS Can Help in Disastrous Times

There's no way to plan for a disaster. But there is recovery help from an unexpected source: the Internal Revenue Service.

IRS Form 1040
IRS Form 1040

In most instances, you can count unforeseen casualty losses as itemized deductions. Of course, you have to fill out extra paperwork and keep good records.

For 2008 and 2009 tax years, however, some changes were made to provide extra tax help, including a standard deduction option, for individuals whose losses were the result of a major disaster.

Whether your claim is a more routine loss or the result of a presidentially declared disaster, you won't recover dollar for dollar the financial loss you suffered. But every little bit helps. For major disasters, it's usually worth the effort to claim the tax write-off.

What counts as a casualty?

First, your loss must meet IRS deductibility guidelines. The agency classifies a casualty as the damage, destruction or loss of property resulting from a sudden, unexpected or unusual event. The losses can result from natural or man-made disasters.

Natural wear and tear isn't a casualty loss. The IRS won't accept claims for lost property, termite damage to your home or the death of your prize elm tree due to disease.

Figuring the deduction amount

After you've established that your loss is allowable, it's time to figure out exactly how much you can deduct. The IRS sets two limits: First, you must reduce your loss amount by $100, and the remainder then must be more than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. You also have to subtract any insurance money you got for the loss.

For example, after collecting from your homeowners' insurance, you were out of pocket $6,000 in damages from a flood. You subtract $100 from that $6,000 loss, giving you $5,900. Then you subtract 10 percent of your AGI, which for our example, let's say, is $50,000, giving you an amount of $5,000. That leaves you a casualty loss claim on your tax return of $900 ($6,000 - $100 - $5,000 = $900).

You need Form 4684 to figure and report your casualty loss and Schedule A to itemize your loss deduction. Attach both of these to your individual income tax return Form 1040. You don't have to include supporting documents with your return, but you need those records to help you complete Form 4684 and to verify your expenses and losses, if the IRS ever questions the deduction.

Then you have to figure out the "real money" value of your deduction. Deductions don't directly translate into tax dollars saved, so a casualty deduction of $5,000 won't get you a five grand refund. Rather, deductions reduce your taxable income. The less taxable income you have, the smaller your tax bill. After you determine your casualty loss deduction, you must refigure your taxes using the new taxable income amount to see just how much of a refund you'll get.

Next: How to make your claim...