A Tax Twist on Your Favorite Game Show

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Game Show Tax Twist

If you like to watch game shows and enjoy all the excitement that goes with watching contestants win prizes, then you can add another element to your viewing pleasure by considering how the contestants will handle the IRS Form 1099-MISC they receive for the value of the items they won. You may not have thought much about it, but the contestants must pay federal and applicable state income tax on the cash and the value of the goods they win on game shows.

The lucky ones are those who simply win cash. They will have money to pay the taxes—unless, of course, they overlook the tax issue, spend all the winnings, and end up with a tax liability they cannot pay when it’s time to file their income tax return(s) for the year in which they won the money. All that winning excitement turns into a stressful financial problem, and they probably end up wishing they hadn’t won.

But what happens to the contestants who win a prize? They will have more complex issues. They will be taxed on the prize’s fair market value (FMV), which is usually full retail value. So, they will have to dig into their own pockets to come up with the cash to pay the taxes. And if a contestant wins something they have no use for, they are still stuck with taxes unless they refuse the prize or contribute it to charity. But if the item is donated to charity, the prize winner still needs to include in adjusted gross income (AGI) that FMV amount and can claim an offsetting deduction for the contribution only if they itemize their deductions. Having to include the winnings in AGI can cause undesirable tax consequences because various deductions and credits are limited depending on AGI.

Then think about the individual with limited means that wins an $80,000 vehicle. It might well cost them $17,500 or more (which they probably don’t have) just to pay Uncle Sam the income taxes on the prize. Or consider the contestant who wins an expensive trip. Typically, hotel packages are valued by the game shows at their top retail value, not the discounted rates that can be obtained online or through a travel agent. Thus, those who accept the trip may not be able to afford the taxes on the trip, and after a week in paradise, they find themselves in tax purgatory.

contestants who win a prizeThe issue becomes a real financial drag for the taxpayer who is unable to pay the tax liability because they end up with failure-to-pay (and perhaps underpayment of estimated tax) penalties and interest that the IRS keeps tacking on until the liability is finally paid in full.

The tax issues can be avoided by refusing the non-cash prize, especially if the prize is something of no use to the winner. Another option for easy-to-sell items is to accept the prize and then sell it (not to a relative or friend). The gap between retail and real value can be especially harmful for winners who accept a prize with the intent to resell it: They’re paying taxes on a value they have no hope of recouping, which eats into the profits. If a prize item is sold at a loss, the loss would not be tax deductible because it isn’t considered an investment or business asset, and losses on personal-use items aren’t deductible.

Remember back in 2004 when Oprah Winfrey gave away to everyone in the audience a Pontiac? The sticker price of those cars was $28,500, and that amount had to be claimed as income by the audience members. If the person who received a car was in the 25% federal tax bracket, they were looking at a tax bill of $7,125. And for some, they also faced a state income tax. So, the free car wasn’t free and could have ended up as a tax headache for some.

Years ago, one famous contestant on “Survivor” did not report his $1 million winnings, claiming that CBS had told him the network was responsible for the taxes. It turns out that the contract he signed with CBS specifically stated that he was responsible for the taxes, and as a result, he ended up in federal court, where he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to a 51-month prison term.

In some cases the value assigned by the game show can be disputed if the prize winner can reasonably establish and document that the FMV is different. Tax courts have frequently taken special factors into consideration in determining the fair market value of awards and prizes.

Thinking about how the contestant will deal with taxes can add a new twist to watching your favorite game show.

As you can see, there is a downside to being a game show winner! If you have more questions related to prize winnings, please give this office a call.

For more information, call Alex Franch at 781.789.7200. WorthTax has locations in Norwell, Dedham, and Weymouth, Massachussetts.
Alex Franch

Mr. Franch is a Tax Specialist and Partner at Joseph Cahill & Associates / WorthTax. He has a diverse background including a Bachelor of Science from Boston College in Mathematics and extensive military service. Mr. Franch is an Enrolled Agent and has eight years of tax preparation experience. He has been serving individuals, families, and businesses for several years with tax and financial planning strategies and is a junior partner with the firm. Mr. Franch is licensed by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) with a Series 6, 63, 65, and 7, and by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Insurance.