Archive for the ‘losses’ Tag

Do you Run a Business…or a Hobby?

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

January 10, 2014

I remember a number of years ago preparing a tax return for a woman who was employed part-time, but who also had a side business as an artist – a painter as I recall.  When I was preparing her Schedule C for the art business there were lots of expenses – art supplies and tools, framing expenses, office expenses, vehicle expenses, postage, dues and subscriptions, a home office deduction, meal and entertainment expenses, and lots of travel expenses.  In all it came to over $35,000.  When I got to the revenue side, however, only $400 was listed.  I thought it was a mistake – maybe missing a few zeroes on the end, so I gave her a call.  She said she just had a bad year and sold hardly anything.  “Okay,” I thought, “that is a pretty bad year. I wonder what a good year looks like for her?”

As the story unraveled, there was a history of growing expenses from $10,000 to $35,000 a year and a history of revenues in bad years of $0 to a few thousand dollars in the “good years.”   I could clearly see now what was going on – she must have had about the same natural talent for painting as me and her paintings were so ugly that they wouldn’t be hung in a dumpster, much less purchased.  Actually, that is not what I thought.  I believe she had a hobby as an artist, she loved to travel, and she developed an addiction for tax deductions when she married her art and travel on a Schedule C tax form!

The IRS is very much aware of this phenomenon, and section 183 of the Internal Revenue Code and its related regulations deal specifically with this area.  The rules are known affectionately as “hobby loss rules.”  The basic rule is that if you are not truly engaged in an activity for profit, then your deductions will be limited to your revenue.  This takes all the fun out filing a Schedule C in situations like this, since losses generated are disallowed and cannot offset other income on your tax returns.  If you get audited on the issue and lose, the IRS can go back and disallow the losses from past years, and then assess the tax you should have owed along with stiff penalties and interest that accrue dating back to the dates you should have paid the tax originally.  This can get very ugly.

So how can you safely assume you are engaged in an activity for profit?  Section 183 plainly tells us that if you are profitable in three out of every five consecutive years (two of seven for horse breeding), you are generally presumed to be engaged in an activity for profit.  Of course, if you have a pattern of reporting $200 of income for three years and then $100,000 of losses for the next two, they will not be that graceful towards you.

The meat of their determinations lie in a list of nine characteristics (albeit non-exhaustive) which they apply to your facts and circumstances.  The nine factors are: 1) are you carrying on the business in a business-like manner – records, formalities, changing tactics that don’t work, 2) do you have or did you hire necessary expertise – not only in your subject matter, but in running a successful business, 3) what percentage of your time is devoted to the business (more important with activities that do not have substantial personal or recreational aspects), 4) reasonable expectation that the assets may appreciate in value and offset the expenses, 5) the history of success in similar or dissimilar activities, 6) the history of the activity’s income and losses, 7) if you have occasional profits, how substantial are they, 8) do you have other sources of income, and is this activity providing tax benefits, and 9) how much personal or recreational pleasure is involved in the activity.

People in the arts have a higher level of scrutiny due to the common personal and recreational pleasure often involved.  In a 1977 court case (Churchman v. Commissioner) the court said, “[A] history of losses is less persuasive in the art field than it might be in other fields.”  They also concluded that music falls in their definition of arts.

As you are preparing for your tax returns this year, and if you know you have a business with a pattern of losses, you may want to examine yourself in light of these nine factors.  Keep in mind, however, that even if you lose money for a long time, as long as you can demonstrate over these characteristics, you can still be okay.  Oh, and regarding the client I worked with years ago – once I did a calculation and showed her the potential penalties and back taxes she could owe, she completely dropped the Schedule C altogether.

Prior articles are republished on my website at

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Losses on 401(k)s, IRAs, and 529 Plans

Originally published in the Pacific Grove Hometown Bulletin

September 21, 2011


The stock market seems like a pinball these days bumping off financial forecasts and being paddled by fiscal policy promises.  Unable to stomach some of the lows over the past few years more than a few people gave up the game and pulled money out of investments seeking the “security” of cash.   Others may have felt they had no choice, and cashed out their retirement savings to live on; some realizing they contributed more money to the plan than they got back!  Perhaps this happened to your retirement or education savings accounts, or will happen at some point.  But can you get a tax deduction for the loss in value you have incurred?

Well, it depends.  The chief determining factor is whether or not you have basis in your account.  Basis in a retirement or education account is created if you make contributions for which you receive no tax deduction when contributed.  For example – Roth-IRA contributions are not deductible when they are made, so the original contribution amount each year adds to your basis.  Education savings through section 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts are the same way.   Many employers now offer a Roth contribution option within a 401(k) plan.  These contributions also create basis.

Traditional 401(k), SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, and traditional IRA contributions provide you with an immediate tax deduction, so they provide no basis.  However, if you were over a certain income threshold and tried to make traditional IRA contributions, you may have been allowed to contribute to the account, but prohibited from taking the deduction.  This is termed a “nondeductible IRA contribution;” it would have created basis; and it is tracked on Form 8606 in your tax returns.

If it is determined you do have basis, and for a strategic reason (or by necessity) you end up liquidating the IRA (all IRAs of the same type must be liquidated for this to work), and the value of the IRA is less than your basis in the account, then you are eligible to take the loss as a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to the two percent threshold.  If you have more than one section 529 plan, the calculation is a little different.

Liquidating your retirement accounts to get a possible tax deduction is not typically an advisable course of action for many reasons, and you would want to discuss this with your tax professional and investment advisor first.  However, sometimes, this can be a strategic move.  More often, it will have been done out of perceived necessity or by accident.  If it happens, however, you certainly want to make your tax professional aware of your losses and take the deduction if you are eligible.

Two quick examples:  1) Melissa, a parent, starts a 529 account (only has one) and contributes $10,000 towards her child’s future education.  A year later, the investments have fallen, and the account is only worth $6,000.  Melissa could liquidate the account and take a $4,000 loss on Schedule A.  Then she could start a new 529 plan putting the $6,000 back into the plan.  Melissa has just harvested a $4,000 loss. 2) Joseph opened his first Roth-IRA three years ago and contributed $14,000 over the three years.  He received some bum advice from a friend and invested most of it in a penny stock mail-order belly-dancer business that went belly-up.  Joseph’s account is now only worth $1,000.  He could liquidate his Roth-IRA and take a $13,000 loss on Schedule A.

There may be other circumstances and specific rules that affect you, and you should consult with a qualified tax professional regarding your tax situation.  Prior articles are republished on my website at

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.