Businesses don’t always earn a profit. This is particularly likely to occur when they are first starting out or when economic conditions are bad. If you’re in this unfortunate situation, you may be able to obtain some tax relief. If, like most small business owners, you’re a sole proprietor, you may deduct any loss your business incurs from your other income for the year—for example, income from a job, investment income, or your spouse’s income (if you file a joint return). If your business is operated as an LLC, S corporation, or partnership, your share of the business’s losses are passed through the business to your individual return and deducted from your other personal income in the same way as a sole proprietor. However, if you operate your business through a C corporation, you can’t deduct a business loss on your personal return. It belongs to your corporation.
If your losses exceed your income from all sources for the year, you have a “net operating loss” (NOL for short). While it’s not pleasant to lose money, an NOL can reduce your tax liability for the current and future years.
Figuring the amount of an NOL is not as simple as deducting your losses from your annual income. First, you must determine your annual losses from your business (or businesses). If you’re a sole proprietor who files IRS Schedule C, the expenses listed on the form will exceed your reported business income. If your business is a partnership, LLC, or S corporation shareholder, your share of the business’s losses will pass through the entity to your personal tax return. Your business loss is added to all your other deductions and then subtracted from all your income for the year. The result is your adjusted gross income (AGI).
To determine if you have an NOL, you start with your AGI on your tax return for the year reduced by your itemized deductions or standard deduction (but not your personal exemption). This must be a negative number or you won’t have an NOL for the year. Your adjusted gross income already includes all the deductions you have for your losses. You then add back to this amount any nonbusiness deductions you have that exceed your nonbusiness income. These include the standard deduction or itemized deductions, deduction for the personal exemption, nonbusiness capital losses, IRA contributions, and charitable contributions. If the result is still a negative number, you have an NOL for the year.
In the past, business owners could “carry a loss back”—that is, they could apply an NOL to past tax years by filing an application for refund or amended return. This enabled them to get a refund for all or part of the taxes they paid in past years. NOLs could generally be carried back two years. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (“TCJA”) has eliminated carrybacks for NOLs. Starting in 2018, an NOL may only be deducted against the current year’s taxes. However, a two-year carryback continues to apply for certain losses incurred by farming businesses.
Moreover, the TCJA permits taxpayers to deduct NOLs only up to 80% of taxable income for the year (not counting the NOL deduction). Any unused NOL amounts may be carried forward and deducted in any number of future years (under prior law, NOLs could be carried forward no more than 20 years).
The TCJA also limits deductions of “excess business losses” by individual business owners. Married taxpayers filing jointly may deduct no more than $500,000 per year in total business losses. Individual taxpayers may deduct no more then $250,000. If a business is owned through a multi-member LLC taxed as a partnership, partnership, or S corporation, the $250,000/$500,000 limit applies to each owners’ or members’ share of the entity’s losses. Unused losses may be deducted in any number of future years as part of the taxpayer's net operating loss carryforward. This limitation takes effect in 2018 and is scheduled to last through 2025.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in 2020. The CARES Act reinstated old NOLs rules and even made them more favorable than they were prior to the TCJA. Under these new temporary rules, NOLs occurring in 2018, 2019, and 2020 can be used to offset 100% of income earned during those years, instead of just 80%. In addition, NOLs incurred during 2018 to 2020 can be carried back five years and the carried back NOLs are not subject to the 80% income limitation. Thus, if they are large enough, they can completely eliminate the tax liability for these years resulting in a tax refund.
For more on the temporary NOLs tax relief measures under the CARES Act, see Tax Relief for Businesses With Net Operating Losses (NOLs) Under CARES Act.