How to Determine Your Company's Fiscal Year

Fiscal Year vs. Tax Year Explained

Your Business Fiscal Year

low Images, Inc. / Getty Images 

Every business has a fiscal year. A company's fiscal year is its financial year; it is any 12-month period that the company uses for accounting purposes. The fiscal year is expressed by stating the year-end date. A fiscal year-end is usually the end of any quarter, such as March 31, June 30, September 30, or December 31.

To confuse the issue, the IRS says a fiscal year is "12 consecutive months ending on the last day of any month except December 31." The IRS distinguishes "fiscal year" from "tax year," stating that a tax year can be either a fiscal year or the calendar year.

What Is the Difference Between a Fiscal Year and a Tax Year? 

A tax year is the designation of a year used by the IRS for tax purposes. The IRS says, 

A “tax year” is an annual accounting period for keeping records and reporting income and expenses.

For tax year purposes, the IRS says you can use either of these two years as your business tax year: 

  • A calendar year: January 1 to December 31
  • Your company's fiscal year.

If your fiscal year ends on December 31, you're using a calendar year as your business tax year. 

Your business fiscal year is almost always your tax year, but it doesn't have to be. A corporation with a March 31 fiscal year-end may also file a corporate income tax return, effective March 31.

Think of it this way:

  • Your business fiscal year is internal. At the end of your fiscal year, you report on your business financial situation to your shareholders, or just to yourself.
  • Your business tax year is external: It's the 12-month period you report on to the IRS for tax purposes.

Why Does My Company's Fiscal Year Matter? 

 It depends on the type of business you own. If you have a seasonal business that has highs and lows in sales and activity, you may decide you want to have your business fiscal year be the end of the quarter after the activity has ended. This makes it easier to see how your business has done for the year.

For example, a retail business that does all its sales over the holidays may want a December 31 year-end.

How Is My Company's Fiscal Year Used?

Your fiscal year is primarily used for tax purposes. Some types of businesses file their income taxes on a fiscal year basis, rather than a calendar year basis. Partnerships, corporations, and S corporations may have a fiscal year-end that's different from the calendar year-end. Fiscal year-end is also used to determine the filing dates and due dates for extensions

Do I Have to Have a Specific Fiscal Year, by Law? 

Your business can have any fiscal year you want, depending on your business type (see below). But it's almost impossible to have NO fiscal year because the IRS will ask you for this date. 

Just to be even more confusing, on the application for your Employer ID Number (EIN), the IRS asks for the closing date of your business's "accounting year." An accounting year can be either a calendar year or a fiscal year as the IRS defines it (above). If you aren't using a calendar year for your fiscal year, check with the accountant before answering this question.

The IRS has some requirements for tax years. A business taxed as a sole proprietorship (which files its business income tax return on Schedule C), must use December 31 as the business tax year. Because single-member LLC's are taxed as sole proprietorships, they must also use a December 31 business fiscal year. A partnership must conform its tax year to the tax year of the partners (December 31), unless certain circumstances apply. 

Generally, anyone can adopt the calendar year as their tax year. However, if any of the following apply, you must adopt the calendar year:

  • You keep no books or records.
  • You have no annual accounting period.
  • Your present tax year does not qualify as a fiscal year.
  • You are required to use a calendar year by a provision of the Internal Revenue Code or the Income Tax Regulations.

What Is the Best Date for My Fiscal Year-End?

Fiscal year-end dates are set using two criteria:

  • Type of business: sole proprietorship or a business that is taxed as a sole proprietorship (single-member LLC, for example) must use a December 31 fiscal year-end to match the personal tax year-end.
  • Business cycle: If your business is not taxed as a sole proprietorship, you can choose the end of any quarter for your fiscal year-end. Most companies base their fiscal year-end on the business cycle for their industry, choosing the end of the busiest time for their fiscal year-end.

Some examples: Companies that do most of their business in the summer might choose a September 30 year-end. If your business does a lot of work with the U.S. government, you might choose a September 30 year-end to coincide with the federal government's fiscal year-end. If your business does most of its selling during the holidays, you might choose December 31.

How Do I Change My Company's Fiscal Year or Tax Year? 

Since a fiscal year is an internal matter, your business can make changes in the fiscal year according to your corporate by-laws, any partnership or LLC agreements, or by other means (consult your legal advisor).

If you change your fiscal year, you must change your tax year. If you want to change your tax year, you must have IRS approval. The general form used to change a tax year is IRS Form 1128 - Application to Adopt, Change, or Retain a Tax Year.

If your business is a partnership, S corporation, or personal services corporation, you may need to use IRS Form 8716 to change your tax year to a year other than the required tax year.

Changing your business tax year or fiscal year may be more complicated than it seems. IRS Form 1128, for example, is long and confusing. Get help from a tax attorney or other tax professional if you want to change your tax year.

What About a Short Year?

Your business may have a short tax year if you

  • Start your business,
  • End your business or
  • Change your tax year during a year.

A short tax year is just a year that's less than 12 months.

The IRS says you must file a tax return for a short tax year. For example, if you start your business on July 1 and your tax year ends December 31, you would need to file your first business tax return for the six months from July 1 through December 31. IRS publication 538 - Accounting Periods and Methods explains how to figure your business taxes for a short year.

Do I Have to Report My Fiscal Year to the IRS? 

Other than reporting your accounting year on your Employer ID application, you don't have to report your fiscal year to the IRS. but you must let the IRS know which tax year you are using. The IRS says, "Unless you have a required tax year [sole proprietors, for example], you adopt a tax year by filing your first income tax return using that tax year."  

Article Sources

  1. IRS "Tax Years." Accessed Sept. 18, 2019.

  2. IRS. Publication 538. Accounting Periods and Methods. "Partnerships, S Corporations, and Personal Service Corporations (PSCs)." Page 5. Accessed Sept. 18, 2019.