Claiming Business Losses on Your Tax Return
Let's say you have a loss in your business for the year. Can you get a tax refund for that loss? Getting some benefit from your business loss depends on the legal type of business you own and whether your investment in the business is "at risk" in whole or in part. It also depends on whether you have other income.
Limits on business losses are different for corporations vs. other business types that have pass-through taxation (that is, their business profits and losses are included with their personal tax return). Pass-through businesses include sole proprietors, LLCs, partnerships, and S corporations.
New Tax Law Changes for Business Losses
The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has made two significant changes to the way business losses are handled:
- Tax loss carry-forward/carry back. You can still carry a business loss forward to future tax years, but you can no longer carry a net operating loss back to past years. The amount you can carry forward is also limited to 80% of taxable income, but you can use the loss carry-forward provision without limit on the number of years. Tax loss carryforwards are not available to corporations.
- Excess loss limits. Typically, taxpayers can use a loss from business activities to reduce personal income. Limits on what the IRS determines are excess business losses are limited, based on the total income of the taxpayer. Loss limits don't apply to corporations. In other words, you can't write off (deduct) business losses if they are too large.
Pass-Through Entities and the Business Loss Limit
Excess loss limits only affect pass-through businesses, because their business income is passed through to their personal tax return. These business types are:
- Sole proprietors and one-owner LLCs (called single-member LLC) that calculate business taxes on Schedule C as part of the owner's personal tax return.
- Partnerships and multiple-member LLCs that calculate business taxes on a partnership tax return, with income passing through to the individual partners.
- S corporations that calculate business taxes on Form 1120S, with income passing through to individual owners.
What is an Excess Loss?
The IRS says an excess loss is:
the amount by which the total deductions from all trades or businesses exceed a taxpayer’s total gross income and gains from those trades or businesses, plus $250,000, or $500,000 for a joint return.
To say it more simply, you can't take any loss more than $250,000/$500,000 is considered excess and that excess amount can't be taken as a loss on your tax return for the year.
If your business loss for the year is greater than the loss allowed for the year because it is over the excess loss limit, you may be able to carry forward the excess loss to a future tax year. See IRS Publication 536 about Net Operating Losses for more details.
How Excess Loss Limit Works: Examples
Example 1: Pam (a single taxpayer) had a business loss of $125,000 this tax year. Since it was less than $250,000, he can take the full $125,000 of loss on his tax return this year.
Example 2: Tom (a single taxpayer) has a business loss for the year of $325,000. This amount is greater than the $250,000 limit, so he can only take $250,000 of loss on this year's return, leaving $75,000 of loss that he might be able to carry forward to the next tax year.
These examples are over-simplified. The calculation of excess business loss on IRS Form 461 is complicated, and other factors on an individual tax return, including at-risk rules and passive activity rules (explained below) may affect the excess loss.
Determining Excess Loss - Steps
Your total income and losses from all business and personal sources are collected on your personal tax return. You must calculate your net operating loss (the loss from normal business operations) using specific IRS methods.
Before you calculate the excess business loss, you must first apply (1) at-risk rules and then (2) passive activity rules.
At-risk rules limit your losses from business to your amount at risk in the activity. These at-risk limits apply to partners and S corporation shareholders and certain closely-held C corporation owners. At-risk rules also apply to specific types of business.
If your business is a sole proprietor or single-member LLC filing your business tax return on Schedule C, you'll need to use IRS Form 6198 to compute and report your at-risk situation.
Passive activity also limits business loss deductions. Business losses may be limited if they result from what the IRS calls "passive activity," that is, a business in which the owner does not participate on a regular, continuous, or substantial basis. Losses resulting from passive activity can only be deducted up to the amount of income from that business.
For details on both at-risk rules and passive activity, see IRS Publication 925.
After those rules have been applied, you can consider how much loss you can take for the year. The form used to calculate this loss in IRS Form 461: Limitation on Business Losses. The information needed for the calculation is on this form. It assumes you are filing a 1040 form for your personal taxes.
IRS Form 1040 changed significantly in 2018 and Schedule 1 was added. Be sure you use the 2018 or later version of these forms.
If your business loss for the year is greater than the loss allowed for the year because it is over the excess loss limit, you may be able to carry forward the excess loss to a future tax year.
See the instructions for Form 6198 for more information, or check with your CPA or tax advisor. It is one section you don't want to try by yourself unless you are positive you know what you are doing.
Partnerships, LLCs, and S Corporations
Partners in partnerships, LLC members, and S corporation owners pay tax on their share of the profits of the business. They can also offset losses, up to the amount of their investment "basis" in the business. See this IRS article with answers to common questions about partnership losses.
As you can see, the IRS regulations on business losses are complicated. The information in this article is a brief overview, not intended to be tax or legal advice. Get the help of a tax professional who is experienced with business activities.
IRS. The Highlights of Tax Reform for Businesses. "Net operating losses." Accessed Sept. 22, 2019.
IRS. The Highlights of Tax Reform for Businesses. "Excess business losses." Accessed Sept. 22, 2019.
IRS Newsroom "IRS issues guidance on changes to excess business and net operating losses." Accessed Sept. 22, 2019.
IRS. Publication 925: Passive Activity and At-risk Rules, Page 2. Accessed Sept. 22, 2019.