Hobby or Business? It Makes a Difference for Taxes – Now More than Ever

Article Highlights:

  • For-Profit Businesses
  • Not-for-Profit Businesses
  • Nine Determining Factors
  • Profit Presumption

Taxpayers are often confused by the differences in tax treatment between businesses that are entered into for profit and those that are not, commonly referred to as hobbies. Recent tax law changes have added to the confusion. The differences are:

Businesses Entered Into for Profit – For businesses entered into for profit, the profits are taxable, and losses are generally deductible against other income. The income and expenses are commonly reported on a Schedule C, and the profit or loss—after subtracting expenses from the business income—is carried over to the taxpayer’s 1040 tax return. (An exception to deducting the business loss may apply if the activity is considered a “passive” activity, but most Schedule C proprietors actively participate in their business, so the details of the passive loss rules aren’t included in this article.)

Hobbies – Hobbies, on the other hand, are not entered into for profit, and the government currently does not permit a taxpayer to deduct their hobby expenses but does require the income from the activity to be declared. (Prior to the changes included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, hobbyists were allowed to deduct expenses up to the amount of their hobby income as a miscellaneous itemized deduction on Schedule A. Being able to take this deduction is suspended for years 2018 through 2025.) Thus, hobby income is reported on Schedule 1 of their 1040 and no expenses are deductible.

So, what distinguishes a business from a hobby? The IRS provides nine factors to consider when making the judgment. No single factor is decisive, but all must be considered together in determining whether an activity is for profit. The nine factors are:

(1) Is the activity carried out in a businesslike manner? Maintenance of complete and accurate records for the activity is a definite plus for a taxpayer, as is a business plan that formally lays out the taxpayer’s goals and describes how the taxpayer realistically expects to meet those expectations.

(2) How much time and effort does the taxpayer spend on the activity? The IRS looks favorably at substantial amounts of time spent on the activity, especially if the activity has no great recreational aspects. Full-time work in another activity is not always a detriment if a taxpayer can show that the activity is regular; time spent by a qualified person hired by the taxpayer can also count in the taxpayer’s favor.

(3) Does the taxpayer depend on the activity as a source of income? This test is easiest to meet when a taxpayer has little income or capital from other sources (i.e., the taxpayer could not afford to have this operation fail).

(4) Are losses from the activity the result of sources beyond the taxpayer’s control? Losses from unforeseen circumstances like drought, disease, and fire are legitimate reasons for not making a profit. The extent of the losses during the start-up phase of a business also needs to be looked at in the context of the kind of activity involved.

(5) Has the taxpayer changed business methods in an attempt to improve profitability? The taxpayer’s efforts to turn the activity into a profit-making venture should be documented.

(6) What is the taxpayer’s expertise in the field? Extensive study of this field’s accepted business, economic, and scientific practices by the taxpayer before entering into the activity is a good sign that profit intent exists.

(7) What success has the taxpayer had in similar operations? Documentation on how the taxpayer turned a similar operation into a profit-making venture in the past is helpful.

(8) What is the possibility of profit? Even though losses might be shown for several years, the taxpayer should try to show that there is realistic hope of a good profit.

(9) Will there be a possibility of profit from asset appreciation? Although profit may not be derived from an activity’s current operations, asset appreciation could mean that the activity will realize a large profit when the assets are disposed of in the future. However, the appreciation argument may mean nothing without the taxpayer’s positive action to make the activity profitable in the present.

There is a presumption that a taxpayer has a profit motive if an activity shows a profit for any three or more years within a period of five consecutive years. However, the period is two out of seven consecutive years if the activity involves breeding, training, showing, or racing horses.

All of this may seem pretty complicated, so please call this office if you have any questions or need additional details for your particular circumstances.

Are You an S Corporation Stockholder? Are You Taking Reasonable Compensation in the Form of Wages?

Article Highlights:

  • S Corporation Compensation
  • Reasonable Compensation
  • Factors Determining Reasonableness
  • In the Spotlight
  • Sec. 199A Deduction

S corporation compensation requirements are often misunderstood and abused by owner-shareholders. An S corporation is a type of business structure in which the business does not pay income tax at the corporate level and instead distributes (passes through) the income, gains, losses, and deductions to the shareholders for inclusion on their income tax returns. If there are gains, these distributions are considered return on investment and therefore are not subject to self-employment taxes.

However, if stockholders also work in the business, they are supposed to take reasonable compensation for their services in the form of wages, and of course, wages are subject to FICA (Social Security and Medicare) and other payroll taxes. This is where some owner-shareholders err by not paying themselves a reasonable compensation for the services they provide, some out of unfamiliarity with the requirements and some purposely to avoid the payroll taxes.

The Internal Revenue Code establishes that any officer of a corporation, including S corporations, is an employee of the corporation for federal employment tax purposes. S corporations should not attempt to avoid paying employment taxes by having their officers treat their compensation as cash distributions, payments of personal expenses, and/or loans rather than as wages.

If the S corporation does not pay its working stockholders a reasonable compensation for their services, then the IRS generally will treat a portion of the S corporation’s distributions as wages and impose Social Security taxes on the deemed wages.

There is no specific method for determining what constitutes reasonable compensation, and it is based upon facts and circumstances. Generally, it is an amount that unrelated employers would pay for comparable services under like circumstances and based upon the cost of living in the area where the business is located. The following are just some of the many factors that would be taken into account in making this determination:

  • Training and experience
  • Duties and responsibilities
  • Time and effort devoted to the business
  • Dividend history
  • Payments to non-shareholder employees
  • Timing and manner of paying bonuses to key people
  • What comparable businesses pay for similar servicesCompensation agreements
  • The use of a formula to determine compensation

The problem here, of course, is that it is easy for the IRS to list contributing factors used by the courts in determining reasonable compensation and leave it to the corporation to quantify these factors into a reasonable salary but still have the ability to challenge the selected amount later if an auditor, off the top of their head, decides the compensation is unreasonable.

The IRS has a long history of examining S corporation tax returns to ensure that reasonable compensation is being paid, particularly if no compensation is shown being paid to employee-stockholders.

Reasonable Compensation in the Spotlight – With the passage of tax reform, reasonable compensation will be in the spotlight because of the new deduction for 20% of pass-through income. This new Sec. 199A deduction is equal to 20% of qualified business income (QBI) and will figure intro the shareholder’s income tax return. The QBI for the stockholder of an S-corporation is the amount of net income passed through to the stockholder and designated as QBI on the K-1, but the stockholder may not include the reasonable compensation (wages) he or she was paid as QBI. Thus, wages paid to stockholders actually reduce the QBI because the S corporation deducts the wages as a business expense, therefore reducing the corporation’s net income and QBI. But that does not mean wages can be arbitrarily adjusted to maximize the Sec. 199A deduction.

IRC Sec. 199A Deduction – Here are some details about how the 199A deduction works and the impact of the reasonable compensation wages on the Sec. 199A deduction.

  • The S corporation’s employee-stockholder’s wages are NOT included in qualified business income (QBI) when computing the 199A deduction. Thus, the larger the wages, the smaller the K-1 flow-through income (QBI) and thus the smaller the 199A deduction, which is 20% of QBI. In this case, an S corporation would tend to pay the stockholder a smaller salary to maximize the flow-through income and, as a result, the 199A deduction.
  • If married taxpayers filing a joint return have taxable income that exceeds $315,000 ($157,500 for other filing statuses), the 199A deduction begins to be subject to a wage limitation, and once the taxable income for married taxpayers filing a joint return exceeds $415,000 ($207,500 for other filing statuses), the 199A deduction becomes the lesser of 20% of the QBI or the wage limitation. For these high-income taxpayers, an S corporation will tend to pay stockholders less wage income for them to benefit from the Sec. 199A deduction.
  • If an S corporation is a specified service trade or business, the Sec. 199A deduction phases out for married taxpayers filing a joint return with taxable income between $315,000 and $415,000 (between $157,500 and $207,500 for other filing statuses). And although the wage limitation is used in computing the phase out, once the taxpayer’s taxable income exceeds $415,000 ($207,500 for other filing statuses), the taxpayer will receive no benefit from the wage limitation and therefore would again want to minimize their reasonable compensation to minimize FICA taxes. Specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) include those in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, athletics, consulting, and financial services (for more information on what constitutes an SSTB, please call).

Of course, taxpayers cannot pick and choose a reasonable level of compensation to minimize taxes or maximize deductions. Therein lies a trap for taxpayers who do not consider the factors related to reasonable compensation. There are commercial firms that have the data necessary to determine reasonable compensation and specialize in doing so. These firms can be found by searching the Internet for “reasonable compensation.” Even the IRS has employed these firms to provide reasonable compensation data in tax court cases.

If you want additional information related to reasonable compensation, please give this office a call.