Net Operating Losses (NOLs)

A net operating loss (NOL) occurs when business deductions exceed business income and it can also occur when certain nonbusiness deductions exceed taxable income for the year. Tax law allows individuals or C corporations to carryback NOLs to prior years to claim a refund or to carry forward a loss for no more than 20 years to reduce taxable income in each of the years in which the NOL can be carried. NOLs can be used to offset income by self-employed individuals, professionals, farmers, and other individuals with casualty losses exceeding their income. Pass-through entities cannot claim NOLs, but partners, members of limited liability companies, and shareholders of S corporations can claim NOLs proportionate to their ownership interest in the business entity.

Tax law allows net operating losses to be deducted because they obviously reduce income, but net operating losses also equalize the taxes of different taxpayers with different types of businesses where income may be highly variable. For instance, compare a hypothetical biotech firm with a janitorial service. Suppose the effective tax rate on $100,000 is 25% and on $1 million is 35%, and that the janitorial service earns $100,000 per year for 10 years and the biotech firm earns nothing in the first 2 years but $1 million in the 3rd year, and then earns no income for the remaining 7 years. If the biotech firm could not carryback and carry forward its net operating losses, it would have to pay an effective tax rate of 35%, or $350,000, while the janitorial firm would only have to pay 25% of its ten-year income in taxes, or $250,000, even though both firms earned the same amount of money over the 10-year period.

A NOL is first used to offset income in the year of the NOL, but if the NOL is greater than the income, then it can be used to offset income in other years. However, a NOL carryback or carryforward does not reduce income subject to self-employment tax; only income subject to the marginal tax is reduced. Most businesses and individuals can carry back their losses to offset their income in the 2 previous years, but farmers have a carryback period of 5 years. If the NOL is not used up in the previous years, then they can be carried forward to offset income for up to 20 years. Any NOL remaining after 20 years is lost forever. However, the taxpayer can irrevocably elect to forgo the carryback period and use the NOL to offset future income only, which may be judicious if the taxpayer expects to earn more money in the future or if tax rates are expected to rise.

Example 1.

A sole proprietor has a $42,000 NOL in 2010, which is first carried back 2 years, then applied to future tax years until the NOL is used up.

Year Carryback or
2008 $42,000 $40,000
2009 40,000 37,000
2010 (NOL year)
2011 37,000 31,500
2012 31,500 22,500
2013 22,500 12,700
2014 12,700 4,000
2015 4,000 No

If the taxpayer claimed a NOL on a joint return, then it can be used to offset the joint income. However, if the taxpayer was single when the NOL occurred, then it can only be used to offset his income. If the NOL was claimed on a joint return, but the taxpayer was single or married to someone else, either in the carryback or carryforward periods, then only the portion of the NOL that was used to offset his own income can be used in other years.

The taxpayer should notify the IRS about the NOL deductions by attaching a statement for each claimed NOL showing the pertinent facts about the NOL, including a computation showing how the NOL deduction was calculated.

Although most net operating losses are business losses, other losses and deductions also count:

However, the following cannot be used to calculate a net operating loss:

Under the new tax package passed by the Republicans at the end of 2017, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, NOLs arising after 2017 will be limited to 80% of income. Additionally, NOLs can no longer be carried back to previous years, but can be carried forward indefinitely.

Investors With Operating Losses

Passive activity losses cannot be treated as net operating losses, since they are subject to other rules. If an investor invests in a business but is not active in it, then the investor cannot share in any operating losses of the business. However, if the business goes bankrupt, then the investor can claim a capital loss, which must be offset against other capital losses and up to $3,000 of earned income in any given year. Any unused capital losses can be carried forward indefinitely at the maximum of $3,000 per year for earned income or to offset any capital gains until it is used up or the taxpayer dies. The loss cannot be carried backward.

At-risk rules limit the deductibility of losses to the amount that was actually invested or at risk. The deductible loss must be computed on Form 6198, At-Risk Limitations, with the result being used to compute the tentative refund on Form 1045, Application for Tentative Refund.

Hobby loss rules may also limit the deductibility of business losses, if the activity is conducted more as a hobby rather than a business, with little regard to profits.

Calculating and Reporting Net Operating Losses

The net operating loss deduction is computed on Schedule A of Form 1045, Application for Tentative Refund. Schedule B of this form is used to calculate the actual amounts to be carried back or carried forward. Although this form can be attached to the annual tax return, it can be filed separately.

A net operating loss must be deducted from modified taxable income, which is taxable income before nonbusiness deductions that exceed nonbusiness income, personal exemptions, itemized deductions, or the standard deduction is subtracted. Therefore, on Form 1045, these deductions must be added back to determine the result of the net operating loss. Modified taxable income cannot be less than 0. The change in taxable income created by the NOL carryover will change the adjusted gross income (AGI) for that year, which will also affect deductions and other items that depend on AGI.

Example — Calculating a NOL on Form 1045

This is an outline of how Form 1045 is used to calculate the NOL. You have a small business with the following income and deductions on your Form 1040.

Wages $50,000
Interest on savings $925
Net long-term capital gain on sale of real estate used in business $12,000
Total income $62,925
Net loss from business $64,000
Net short-term capital loss $2,500
Standard deduction $6,200
Personal exemption $3,950
Total deductions $76,650

Your deductions exceed your income by $76,650 - $62,925 = $13,725, but since some of the deductions are not allowed in calculating the NOL, they must be subtracted from your total deductions on Form 1045, Schedule A to calculate the NOL. These deductions cannot be used to calculate the NOL:

Deductions That Must Be Subtracted from Total Deductions to Calculate NOL
Nonbusiness net short-term capital losses $2,500
Nonbusiness deductions (standard deduction of $6,200 - nonbusiness income interest of $925) $5,275
Personal exemption deduction $3,950
Total adjustments to net loss $11,725

Therefore, your NOL is:

Total Income = $62,925
Adjusted Deductions: $76,650 - $11,725 = - $64,925
NOL = $2,000

Form 1045 should be filed separately with a copy of the tax return within 1 year after the end of the tax year. The IRS will either accept or reject the claim within 90 days. An amended Form 1040X can also be filed to claim the refund for NOLs that have been carried back, but this form must be filed within 3 years after the due date, including extensions, of the tax return containing the NOL. The net operating loss is reported as Other Income in the Income section of Form 1040 or one of its variants.

Incorporated Business Losses

Some additional rules apply to calculating NOLs for C corporations. Passive activity losses do not increase NOLs, but the full dividends-received deduction does. As with other businesses, NOLs from previous years are not used to calculate the current year's NOL.

Personal service corporations (PSC) cannot carry back a NOL to any year in which the PSC opted out of using a required year under IRC §444.

Shareholders of a small business corporation can offset their losses on their own returns if it is a §1244 corporation. A corporation can only qualify under §1244 if the total amount of money or property it receives in return for stock was less than $1 million and the corporation passed a resolution stating its intention to be a §1244 corporation.

A §1244 corporation allows shareholders to take losses on their own return of up to $100,000 in the first year, or $50,000 for married persons filing separately, and $3,000 on subsequent years against ordinary income. Losses above $3,000 can be deducted from capital gains but not ordinary income. Any unused portion can be carried forward.

The taxpayer must file a statement with the IRS claiming the §1244 loss. However, if the IRS finds that the §1244 rules did not apply, then the losses are treated under the unincorporated business loss rules, listed above. Also, the IRS scrutinizes sales of §1244 stock between related parties, which includes not only the immediate family and in-laws, but also other businesses controlled by the taxpayer or his family.

Operating losses cannot be claimed on individual tax returns by shareholders of a C corporation. A corporate net operating loss can only be claimed by the corporation. A corporate NOL can also be carried back to get refunds of corporate income taxes paid, by filing IRS Form 1139, Corporation Application For Tentative Refund. If the prior year's tax return has not been filed, then Form 1138, Extension of Time for Payment of Taxes by Corporation Expecting a Net Operating Loss Carry Back must be filed.

Business owners have greater leeway in deducting operating losses than passive investors do. C corporation shareholders can deduct losses on their investment only in the year that the business fails or when they sell their stock. So to give shareholders the maximum tax deduction for possible losses, a small C corporation should issue stock qualified under §1244.

If a corporation files for bankruptcy or is taken over by another corporation through a merger, then all its net operating losses are extinguished. Its NOLs can no longer be used to offset future income for the buyer or acquirer. If a C corporation converts to an S corporation, then its NOL cannot be carried forward but it can be used to offset any built-in capital gains tax on any property that appreciated while held by the C corporation. A NOL can also be used if the S corporation converts back to a C corporation. However, the conversion can only take place after 5 years as an S corporation, unless the IRS permits re-conversion sooner.