If your business claims a net loss for too many years, or fails to meet other requirements, the IRS may classify it as a hobby, which would prevent you from claiming a loss related to the business. If the IRS classifies your business as a hobby, you'll have to prove that you had a valid profit motive if you want to claim those deductions.
The article below is accurate for your 2017 taxes, the one that you file this year by the April 2018 deadline, including a few retroactive changes due to the passing of tax reform. Some tax information below will change next year for your 2018 taxes, but won’t impact you this year. Learn more about tax reform here.
The Internal Revenue Service allows you to take a tax deduction for legitimate losses incurred in the operation of your business. However, if your business claims a net loss for too many years, or fails to meet other requirements, the IRS may classify it as a hobby, which would prevent you from claiming a loss related to the business. If the IRS classifies your business as a hobby, you'll have to prove that you had a valid profit motive if you want to claim those deductions.
Earning a profit
The IRS expects that if you start a business, you intend to make money at it. If you don't, your business is likely to be a hobby. To determine if your business is a hobby, the IRS looks at numerous factors, including the following:
- Do you put in the necessary time and effort to turn a profit?
- Have you made a profit in this activity in the past, or can you expect to make one in the future?
- Do you have the necessary knowledge to succeed in this field?
- Do you depend on income from this activity?
- Are your losses beyond your control?
Practical standard for business classification
The general rule is that if you have not turned a profit in at least three of the prior five years, the IRS will categorize your business as a hobby. This may be extended to a profit in two of the prior seven years in the specific case of horse training, breeding or racing. This is, presumably, because these endeavors involve a great amount of risk.
Consequences of hobby classification
Generally, the IRS classifies your business as a hobby, it won't allow you to take any losses. However, in certain limited situations you can use your hobby expenses to reduce your taxes.
If you have a hobby loss expense that you could otherwise claim as a personal expense, such as the home mortgage deduction, you can claim those expenses in full. Other expenses, such as advertising, wages, insurance premiums, depreciation or amortization, may also be usable. However, you must have earned more total income in your hobby than the amount of all of these deductions, including your personal deductions. In that scenario, it's likely the IRS would categorize your hobby as a business anyway.
Preventing your business from being classified as a hobby
Running a hobby as a business could very possibly trigger an IRS audit. If your business is legitimate, keeping accurate and extensive records could help prevent the classification of your business as a hobby.
In addition to demonstrating your professional approach to your business, records and receipts can help document your profit motive. A written business plan is often a prerequisite for indicating an intent for profit, and it can also show ways in which you are modifying your business to cope with losses.
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