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No bright line between businesses and hobbies

Businesses benefit from many tax breaks. If you are in business with the objective of making a profit, you can generally claim all your business deductions. If your deductions exceed your income for the year, you can claim a loss for the year, up to the amount of your income from other activities. Remaining losses can be carried over into other years.

These are very generous tax breaks and sometimes people establish a business to generate losses. They have no intention of ever earning a profit. Other times, they genuinely hope to earn a profit but never do.

The IRS calls these activities “hobbies.”  Expenses from these activities are never deductible in excess of any income that is declared earned from them. Recently, the IRS issued a new warning in the form of a Fact Sheet (FS-2007-18) to educate taxpayers about the differences between a for-profit business and a hobby.

No bright line

There’s no bright line to distinguish a genuine business with a profit motive from a hobby. Over the years, the IRS and the courts have developed a list of factors to determine if an activity has a profit motive or is a hobby. No one factor is greater than the others and the list is not exhaustive. That means that the IRS and the courts have great leeway in their analyses.

Let’s take a quick look at the factors:

How the business is run? Is the activity carried on in a businesslike manner?  Do you keep complete and accurate business records and books?  Have you changed business operations to increase profits?

Expertise. Do you have the necessary expertise to run the business? If you don’t, do you seek help from experts?

Time and effort. Do you spend the time and effort necessary for the business to succeed?

Appreciation.  Will business assets appreciate in value over time?  A profit motive can exist if gain from the eventual sale of assets, plus any other income, will result in an overall profit even if there’s no profit from current operations.

Success with other activities. Have you engaged in similar activities in the past?

History of income or loss. This factor looks to when the losses occurred. Were they in the start-up phase? Maybe they were due to unforeseen circumstances. Losses over a very long period of time could, but not always, indicate a hobby.

Amounts of occasional profits. Are your occasional profits significant when compared to the size of your investment and prior losses?

Financial status of owner. Is the activity your only source of income?

Personal pleasure or recreation. Is your business of a type that is not usually considered to have elements of personal pleasure or recreation?

Your financial status

If the activity is your only source of income, you would think that the IRS would automatically treat it as a for-profit business. That’s not true. Every case is different and the IRS and the courts look at all the circumstances.

A few years ago, there was a case in the U.S. Tax Court involving a married couple. The husband owned a house framing business. His income was about $33,000 a year. The wife worked as a secretary in an accounting department of a big corporation. Her income was about $28,000 a year.

Together, they also operated a horse breeding and racing activity. They had no experience in breeding or racing horses. They didn’t have the best of luck either. Several of their horses suffered injuries and they were involved in a legal dispute over the ownership of one. They did seek help from experts and also kept good financial records.

The Tax Court looked at all the nine factors. It recognized that the couple had a very modest income from their employment and this factor weighed in their favor. However, some of the other factors went against them, especially the fact that they never made a profit after 16 years and lost nearly $500,000.  The court knew that the couple “hoped” to make a profit but hope wasn’t enough and the court found their business was not engaged in for a profit.

Presumption

Generally, the IRS presumes that an activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five years, including the current year. If it appears that the business will not be profitable for some years, you won’t be able to come within the presumption of profit motive. You’ll have to rely on qualifying under the nine factors.

The IRS has a form on which you can officially elect to have the agency wait until the first five years are up before examining the profitability of your business.  While it’s generally not necessary to file the form in order to take advantage of the presumption, it’s usually a good idea.

Types of businesses

Although the IRS is not limited in the kind of businesses that it can challenge as being hobbies, businesses that look like traditional hobbies generally face a greater chance of IRS scrutiny than other types of businesses. These include horse breeding and racing, “gentlemen farming” and craft businesses operated from the home. There are many court cases about these activities and usually the taxpayers lose.

This is a very complicated area of the tax law and many people, like the secretary and her husband, honestly believe they are operating a for-profit business. But as we’ve seen, the IRS and the courts can, and often do, determine otherwise.

Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about the differences between a business and a hobby …and how you can set up your operations to have a better chance of falling on the right side of any argument with the IRS.

©2020 Bland Garvey CPA