When the road is home
In other words, you can’t legally claim the per diem if your only home is your truck. According to the IRS, to qualify for the deduction, your tax home must match one of the following three descriptions:
- You perform part of your business in the area of your main home and use that home for lodging while doing business in the area.
- You have living expenses at your main home that you duplicate because your business requires you to be away from that home.
- You have not abandoned the area in which both your historical place of lodging and your claimed main home are located; you have a member or members of your family living at your main home; or you often use that home for lodging.”
“You have to have a residence that you’re actually paying for, and you have to have friends,” Fullingim says. Though there is no official amount of time you’re required to spend at your tax home, if you are audited, the IRS might come to your neighborhood and ask your neighbors if they know you or see you come and go on a regular basis.
“A lot of people claim their relative’s place as their residence,” Fullingim says, but that doesn’t qualify in the eyes of the IRS unless the trucker is on record as paying a significant portion of the bills – such as rent or utilities.
Many home-free truckers claim the per diem even when they don’t have a qualifying tax home, Fullingim says, but that is a gamble. “If they audit you and they find out, the taxes you’re going to owe and the penalties and interest are going to kill you,” he says.
If you are planning to go “home-free,” you may want to speak with a truck business services firm about how to legally establish a tax home and claim your per diem. Here are some methods to establish a permanent residence that will qualify as a tax home:
- Pay rent or mortgage.
- Receive mail.
- Pay for home and yard improvements.
- Pay utilities.
- Establish community ties such as church and medical.
- Join an organization like a YMCA.
- Register to vote.
For truckers staying out on the road full-time, health may be an even bigger issue than it is for other drivers, says Dr. John McElligott, chairman and CEO of Professional Drivers Medical Depots.
“Without regular home time visits, there’s nobody out there to notice the physical signs of illness that the trucker might overlook,” he says. He had a patient come in with a cut on his head. After treating the wound, McElligott says he found the patient riddled with advanced-stage cancer – completely undiagnosed or even suspected by the patient.
While it’s important for all truckers to get regular check-ups by their family physician, it’s even more crucial for those who live most of their life on the road. “Just living in an enclosed space puts you at higher risk for infectious diseases,” McElligott says. Other issues include the lack of dietary and fitness options. “Find a family doctor in a location you frequent a few times a year and then make a point to get there for a routine check-up. It’s crucial to have someone check you out that knows you and can follow your care. DOT physicals are not a substitute for an ongoing medical relationship with a physician.”
By the time trucker patients come to his clinics located next to major truckstops, they are often seriously ill. In fact, McElligott says he had to send nearly 1,000 patients to the hospital just last year. “For those with no safety net of friends or family at home, they need to get medical treatment before complications set in.”
Another concern for home-free truckers is what to do when you are really too sick to keep driving but have nowhere to go to recuperate.