WASHINGTON: Prostitutes, cat food, trips to Africa: There are few limits to the expenses Americans believe should be tax deductible, but given the complexity of the tax code they may be forgiven.
To file taxes in the United States is to enter a Byzantine labyrinth replete with pitfalls and potholes.
The system is so complex that ahead of the tax deadline this April 18, tens of millions of Americans -- including the head of the Internal Revenue Service -- will hire professional help to complete their filings.
"It's a horror show" admitted Ann Murphy, who was an IRS attorney for nearly 15 years and now teaches at Gonzaga University.
While even choosing how to file can be tricky -- singly, jointly as a couple, separately in a couple, as a head of household or qualified widower -- choosing which expenses are deductible might be the most fiendish task.
"You can deduct for business expenses, but not if it gets too personal, and that is just a really tough line," explained Murphy.
Frequently that line is crossed.
In the past the US tax court has ruled that a man who spent $65,934 on New York prostitutes in one year could not mark it down as a medical expense.
Earlier this year a court took a dim view of a female Ohio news anchor who claimed business expenses of around $20,000 a year for makeup, self-defense classes, a cotton bikini and thong and subscriptions to Cosmopolitan and Newsweek.
Equally a Texas woman was unsuccessfully in claiming a $1,036 rebate because the value of her emu was depreciating and a Pennsylvania furniture store owner could not claim a half million payment to an arsonist as a "service" cost.
By the same measure sperm donations, mink coats and gambling losses are not always tax deductible.
But over the years the line between illegitimate and legitimate claims has been blurred, pulled and stretched.
In one infamous case from the 1980s, exotic dancer "Chesty Love" successfully claimed for the costs of enlarging her bust size to 56FF.
A court ruled that her "freakishly large breasts" were indeed part of a costume that was "useful only in her business."
Similarly the owners of a junkyard on Hardscrabble Road in Columbia, South Carolina successfully claimed $300 in expenses for cat food, to lure in wild cats and keep snakes and rats at bay.
And the good news for beach lovers is that any business convention held in Bermuda can be written off.
But even as Washington is convulsed in an annual bout of talk about reforming the system, according to Murphy, simplifying the tax code would be great in other areas, but would little affect on deductions.
"How do you fix it? You would have to create a list," she said.
The only way to clean up this part of the tax code, ironically, might be more paper.