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Is It Legal To Call A Haircut A Business Expense?

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

When the New York Times reported on Donald Trump's tax returns, one detail stood out to many. Trump claimed that he spent $70,000 on hairstyling for his reality show "The Apprentice" and classified it as a business expense so that he could deduct it from his tax bill. And that made NPR's Tom Dreisbach wonder, is that legal?

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: When people get in trouble with the IRS, they might call a lawyer, like Sam Brotman in San Diego.

Can I just ask you, have you ever dealt with a case with someone who claimed a haircut as a deduction?

SAM BROTMAN: (Laughter) No, I haven't. We've had a lot of strange deductions at this firm - exotic car rentals, trips to Vegas. But the hair, beauty salon type of stuff is very, very difficult to pass off.

DREISBACH: That's because it is illegal to claim a personal expense as a business expense. Still, the line between personal and business can be blurry. And over the years, people have tried to make the case to the IRS - people like Richard Drake. In the 1960s, Drake served in the army, and the army required him to get a haircut every two weeks. So Drake figured that's a business expense, and he deducted $50 for haircuts. The tax court disagreed and found that expenses for everyday grooming are inherently personal, even for soldiers. But what if, say, you're a performer and you need to look or sound a certain way to get jobs, like the actor Ned Sparks?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933")

NED SPARKS: (As Barney Hopkins) You've got a swell voice and a great personality. You're different. You've got class.

DREISBACH: That's Sparks in the movie "The Gold Diggers Of 1933" (ph). You might have heard that when he said the word class, there was a slight whistle. Well, Sparks heard it, too, and so he got dentures to fix it. At tax time, he wrote off the cost of those dentures as a business expense because he said he'd lose jobs without fixing his teeth. But the court said it would be difficult to imagine anything more personal than a set of false teeth - denied again.

The courts have referenced both of those cases when judging whether people can write off hair care, and that brings us to Donald Trump. In 2004, while promoting "The Apprentice", Trump said his hair care was actually pretty simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: You know what I do? I take a shower. I wash it. I then comb it. I then set it. And then I spray it, and it's good for the day.

DREISBACH: But Trump's taxes claim more went into the hair than just a wash, comb and spray - a lot more.

JENNIFER BLOUIN: Seventy thousand - is that the number?

DREISBACH: That's the number.

BLOUIN: That's a big number.

DREISBACH: And that's Jennifer Blouin, an accounting professor at the Wharton Business School. She says if Trump paid that money for his everyday look, that is most likely illegal. But she says there may be an exception.

BLOUIN: If the president was having his hair done right as he was on the set of "The Apprentice", pinning down the hair in a certain way to be on screen, then that expense would be potentially deductible.

DREISBACH: That is, if Trump, rather than the show, paid for it. Jack Barcal is a tax expert at the University of Southern California, and he says Trump styling his hair for the show is kind of like a showman putting on a costume.

JACK BARCAL: If you're Liberace and you're wearing this sable coat as part of your performance and that's part of your persona, that, to me, would be a totally appropriate deduction.

DREISBACH: With Donald Trump, there often is no line between what's personal and what's business. Trump isn't just his name. It's his brand, used to sell everything from hotels and golf courses to Double Stuf Oreos. And his sons and daughters aren't just family. They're employees or even government advisers. Whether combining those worlds gets him in trouble or off the hook might have to be settled in court.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.