For How Many Years Can You Claim a Business Loss on Your Taxes?

It’s not uncommon for businesses, especially new ones, to spend more money than they make in their initial years. This situation leaves many business owners wondering how many years they can claim a business loss on their taxes to help offset those tough times.

The IRS rules allow business losses to be reported on tax returns, offering some relief during periods when expenses exceed income. This support is crucial for keeping a business afloat until it turns profitable.

Specifically, the tax code enables businesses to carry net operating losses (NOLs) forward to offset future taxable income, which can significantly impact a business’s financial planning.

Before 2018, businesses could carry losses back two years and forward 20 years, potentially adjusting taxes previously paid or reducing future taxable income. 

However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 changed these rules. It eliminated the carryback option for most businesses but allowed losses to be carried forward indefinitely. The catch is that the loss deduction in any year can’t exceed 80% of taxable income.

However, there are some consequences to consistently declaring a loss. You’ll want to ensure your business is not classified as a hobby. Read on to learn more about what the IRS is looking for to determine whether the business is a hobby instead of a profit-making business.

Understanding How the IRS Can Classify Your Business as a Hobby

If the IRS determines an activity is not pursued for profit, it may classify it as a hobby. This classification has significant tax implications, especially in the context of reporting losses. The ability to deduct losses from other income is a key benefit for businesses, allowing them to offset periods of lower income against their tax liabilities. 

In contrast, hobbies do not enjoy this advantage; expenses can only be deducted up to the amount of income generated by the hobby and cannot be used to create a tax loss that affects other income.

How to Prove that Your Business is More Than a Hobby?

To prove your business is more than a hobby, consider these strategies:

  • Maintain Accurate Records: Keep detailed records and accounts that demonstrate your commitment to making a profit.
  • Operate in a Businesslike Manner: Use business bank accounts, have a business plan, and obtain the necessary licenses.
  • Put in Time and Effort: Show that you are dedicating significant time and effort to the activity to make it profitable.
  • Expertise: Demonstrate that you have the necessary knowledge or hire experts to help run the business.
  • Income Changes: Show that the business can make a profit, even if it hasn’t done so yet, and explain why.
  • History of Income: A history of income from the activity can support your case even if it’s not every year.
  • Profit Motive: Document how you intend to turn your activity into a profitable venture.

What Happens When the IRS Classifies Your Business as a Hobby?

When the IRS classifies your business as a hobby, you face several tax implications:

  • Limitation on Deductions: You can only deduct expenses up to the amount of income you earn from the hobby. These deductions are taken as itemized deductions and cannot offset other income.
  • Loss of Business Deductions: You cannot deduct any losses from your hobby to offset other income, which can result in higher taxes.

How to Prevent Your Business From Being Classified as a Hobby?

To prevent your business from being classified as a hobby by the IRS, thus ensuring you can fully benefit from business loss deductions, follow these strategies:

Keep Detailed Records

Maintain meticulous financial records that prove your transactions and intentions to make a profit. This includes keeping receipts, invoices, and bank statements.

Conduct Your Activity in a Businesslike Manner

Use separate bank accounts for your business, create a detailed business plan, and operate in a way that reflects standard industry practices.

Document Your Time and Effort

Show that you are investing significant time and effort into the activity with the intention of making it profitable. This can demonstrate your commitment to turning it into a viable business.

Demonstrate Expertise

Either possess the necessary expertise to make the business profitable or hire experts who can contribute to the success of your business.

Income and Profitability

Work towards generating profit, and if there are losses, document why they occurred and how you plan to turn the business profitable. The IRS considers an activity a business if it has made a profit in three out of the last five years.

Adjust Business Strategies

If your business isn’t profitable, adjust your business model and document these changes to show your efforts to make it profitable.

Seek Professional Advice

Consult with tax professionals, business advisors, or accountants who can provide guidance on operating your business in a manner that aligns with IRS requirements.

Maintain a Professional Presence

Ensure your business has a professional presence, such as a business website, business cards, and marketing materials, which can help demonstrate your seriousness about your business.

Legal and Professional Steps

Take steps such as registering your business, obtaining the necessary licenses, and following industry practices to further establish your business as a legitimate operation.

Securing Your Business’s Financial Future

Understanding the importance of distinguishing your business from a hobby in the eyes of the IRS is crucial, especially when it comes to claiming losses. Businesses can deduct losses to offset taxable income, an essential tool for managing financial challenges. However, if the IRS classifies your activities as a hobby, you lose the ability to deduct these losses beyond the income the hobby generated. This limitation can significantly impact your financial planning and tax obligations.

For entrepreneurs navigating the complexities of business operations and tax regulations, maintaining accurate and comprehensive records is key. This is where doola can make a significant difference. doola offers streamlined bookkeeping solutions designed to keep your business’s financial records in order, ensuring that you have the documentation needed to prove your profit motive and business operations to the IRS.


Can you carry forward business losses to future tax years?

Yes, business losses can be carried forward to future tax years. This allows businesses to use current losses to offset future taxable income, providing tax relief in profitable years.

Are there any restrictions on carrying forward business losses?

Restrictions on carrying forward business losses vary depending on the tax laws in effect for the relevant tax year. Generally, there may be limitations on the amount of loss you can carry forward and for how long you can carry it forward.

Can business losses be carried back to previous tax years?

Under specific conditions and tax laws, such as provisions in the CARES Act for losses in 2018, 2019, and 2020, business losses could be carried back to previous tax years. However, the ability to carry back losses depends on current tax regulations, which may change over time.

Can business losses be used to offset other income on your tax return?

Yes, business losses can be used to offset other income on your tax return, reducing overall taxable income. This can provide significant tax savings, especially for businesses experiencing temporary downturns.

Do losses from one business activity affect losses from other business activities?

Yes, losses from one business activity can be used to offset profits from other business activities, potentially lowering the overall tax liability across all business operations.

Do business losses affect your ability to claim other tax deductions?

Business losses do not generally affect your ability to claim other tax deductions. Deductions unrelated to the business loss, such as standard business expenses, can still be claimed according to tax laws.

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