Swag bag confidential

‘I’m taking what they giving, ’cause I’m working for a livin’

According to the IRS, the presenters at the 81st annual Academy Awards last Sunday, though donating their time and image, and despite being handed their clothes by designers and bedecked with enough loaner diamonds to bail out a flagging automotive industry, were indeed—strangled gasp!—“working.”

Work, as loosely defined by Vegas H&R Block district office manager Tom Newton, would be “anything that you do on behalf [of another] and receive a monetary value.” Though the presenters do not receive checks for their toils, they do traditionally receive the mother of all swag bags, the value of the contents of which routinely reaches into the executive-salary range, in lieu of a check. And that being the case, the cumulative value of their tangible remuneration is considered taxable income. Wow, that’s a mouthful.

If I sound a bit snarky, it’s just a nod to the country’s new spendthrift attitude. No, I’m not considering a change to the Socialist party, so put your pitchfork and torch away. Las Vegas locals routinely receive their weight in swag, though on a far lower scale than, say, Kate Winslet. Ladies especially make out like bandits with all the goodies and freebies a life in the Las Vegas scene has to offer—and for little more than showing up on the right night.

But as the April 15 tax deadline draws ever nearer, and with this year’s economically modified Oscars stirring up the now-perennial conversation about swag and luxury taxes … some people aren’t sleeping so well these days. Egads! Does the spoiled Las Vegas industry crowd actually have anything to worry about come deadline day? Will we fall victim to the dread luxury tax?! The answer, thankfully, is probably not.

It all revolves around the notion of Work. If you don’t do any work—in other words, you are among those being “honored” at one of Vegas’ many parties, such as Women of the Night or King of Clubs—then your swag, whatever it may be, is a gift, and at any value, yours to do with what you please. Another silver lining is that you are welcome to enjoy all the food and beverage comps offered, as the IRS is not interested in consumables, which cannot be appraised and resold and therefore have no fair market value. So drink up!

But, says Newton, “We are subject to worldwide income.” So no matter where you are, if you agree or expect to receive compensation in the form of goods or services for some form of work, like emceeing, and receive a tangible, then the fair market value of that compensation is subject to income tax.

Fair market value, Newton says, is “whatever you could sell it for on the street,” at the swap meet or on eBay—i.e., the price the market will bear (not the stated value of the giveaway). Why so much furor over an innocent little standard industry practice? “The IRS is tightening up more and more,” Newton says, “so they can find every nickel.”

On the flip side, the clubs, too, have obligations regarding their own nickels. Businesses have a ceiling of $25 per person, per gift, if they wish to write those off as business expenses. And in theory, if they gift someone who has done work for them as an unpaid host or emcee, they should all be handing out 1099 forms at the door!

If you are offered such a payment for work you have options: 1. Decline. 2. Accept and donate the gift to charity in advance of it ever touching your hands (it will likely retain its full value that way, yielding a greater tax deduction for you). 3. Accept and receive your gift, then donate it to charity for the fair market value. 4. Accept and pay the piper on Line 21 of your income-tax statement under “Other Income.” (If you’re not sure, H&R Block is offering a $29 “second look” guarantee to save your hide should the IRS want to audit you; you are even able to go back over the last three years!)

The bottom line is, do not fear, but still mind your Ps and Qs. You can continue hosting or attending all the parties and events you like, accepting all the swag and freebies you can carry. Just make sure you don’t lift a finger in return for it.


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