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Why It Is Important To Tell The Difference Between A Hobby And A Business For Tax Purposes

Your “hobby business” could land you in Tax Court – avoid IRS pitfalls by how you structure your small business.

A hobby is any activity that a person pursues because they enjoy it and with no intention of making a profit. People operate a business with the intention of making a profit.  Many enterprising people successfully develop a hobby into a going concern and actually receive income from it. That income must always be reported and taxes paid on that money regardless of your situation. If you leave that hobby as a hobby, under the tax law, you are not allowed to deduct any of the losses incurred by activity in that hobby but any income from a hobby must be reported on Schedule 1, Form 1040, line 8. That is the reason most people turn their hobbies into businesses once they start making money.

Factors To Consider When Determining Whether An Activity Is A Business Or A Hobby.

The IRS considers the following factors to make this determination:

  • The taxpayer carries out activity in a businesslike manner and maintains complete and accurate books and records.
  • The taxpayer puts time and effort into the activity to show they intend to make it profitable.
  • The taxpayer depends on income from the activity for their livelihood.
  • The taxpayer has personal motives for carrying out the activity such as general enjoyment or relaxation.
  • The taxpayer has enough income from other sources to fund the activity.
  • Losses are due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or are normal for the startup phase of their type of business.
  • There is a change to methods of operation to improve profitability.
  • Taxpayer and their advisor have the knowledge needed to carry out the activity as a successful business.
  • The taxpayer was successful in making a profit in similar activities in the past.
  • Activity makes a profit in some years and how much profit it makes.
  • The taxpayer can expect to make a future profit from the appreciation of the assets used in the activity.

All factors, facts, and circumstances with respect to the activity must be considered. No one factor is more important than another.

Exception When Hobby Losses Are Deductible.

By showing that your pursuit of your “hobby” is an activity engaged in for profit, you may be able to deduct those years where you incurred losses if you meet certain presumptions.

For activities not involving the breeding, training, showing, or racing of horses, the presumption is that you business is an activity engaged in for profit where you show annual net income from an activity for 3 or more of the taxable years in the period of 5 consecutive taxable years which ends with the most recent taxable year.  So if for the first three years your activity has incurred losses, you must show net income in years four and five (even if only $1.00 in each year) in order to still be able to deduct the first three years of losses.

For activities involving the breeding, training, showing, or racing of horses, the presumption will work in the same fashion except you must show annual net income from an activity for 2 or more of the taxable years in the period of 7 consecutive taxable years which ends with the most recent taxable year.

Challenges In U.S. Tax Court.

Despite these presumptions, the IRS does not always see your hobby as a viable business, and that is where tax difficulties arise. There are a number of court cases where the question of hobby or business has been decided for the particular business by the IRS, and under challenge, the cases end up in Tax Court. Here are five cases that landed in Tax Court worth discussing.

  1. Fishing: In Busbee v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2000-182, this taxpayer decided to hold fishing tournaments. These tournaments required him to promote the activity through flyers, speaking engagements, and other marketing efforts. He had to recruit participants and sponsors. He intended his hobby of fishing tournaments to supplement his retirement income as he developed it into a business. Through the process, he became an expert in bass fishing. The Tax Court considered all of this, and allowed his business.

In Peacock v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2002-122, this taxpayer began tournament fishing in his retirement. Sailing everywhere on his personal yacht, he and his wife fished specifically for the pleasure of participating in the tournament, especially when these tournaments were in exotic locales. In this case, the Tax Court decided this was not a business but a hobby for the activity was not “motivated primarily by the pursuit of profit”.  What probably hurt their case, even subtly, was the fact that they had just sold a business and were now millionaires.

  1. Golfing: In William James Courville v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1996-134, an optical engineer, after 30 years of employment, was laid off. He decided to become a professional golfer, but took only 4 golf lessons while a “professional”. He did not qualify for the senior tour, and ended up with no income from this activity. However, he did submit a Schedule C, listing expenses totaling over $16,000. The Tax Court declared that he “failed to establish that his golfing activity was carried on with the actual and honest objective of making a profit”.
  2. Track and field coaching: In Parks v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2012-105, the taxpayer began his professional career as a writer of freelance articles on the sport of track and field. Over a number of years, he owned a track and field magazine, coached at a number of different locations, studied with one of the foremost experts in the industry, then basically tried to establish himself and his trainees as credible within the field. By 2006, this man had a winning contestant who qualified for the Olympic trials, and by 2009, that contestant signed the taxpayer coach to a lucrative contract as his exclusive coach, and things only got better for the taxpayer. However, in a tax period of 9 years, the coach showed only a $43 profit, so the IRS claimed hobby not business. The Tax Court considered the case in great detail and decided primarily (although not all points) for the taxpayer, saying his income was growing and he had great potential for success. They did not see track and field as a typical hobby, and that did work to the taxpayer’s benefit.
  3. Writing: There is an infamous case which always gives people a chuckle, and that is the man who decided to write about prostitution. Vitale v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1999-131. Ralph Louis Vitale, Jr., in 1999, claimed on his tax return that he was in the business of writing about prostitution. When this taxpayer began his “research” four years before his retirement, he was still a full-time employee. Over the course of time, he visited a large number of brothels doing his “research” and always paying for services in cash (no records kept). He did keep a journal detailing each of his visits and expenses, and eventually developed a manuscript from his notes. Vitale submitted his manuscript to a vanity publisher, paying $4,375 to publish it. All tolled, after he received $2,600 in royalties, the publisher went bankrupt. Subsequently, the book rights were returned to him, and he again began marketing his book throughout the industry. The IRS said this was just a hobby and disallowed Vitale’s deductions. So Vitale went to Tax Court.  At first, the Tax Court felt that the taxpayer had a profit motive and overruled the IRS, even though the court also made comments about the “recreational” qualities of the contents of his book. The court did like his record-keeping and marketing and felt it showed his professionalism. But then the Tax Court disallowed all of his deductions, for the taxpayer could prove none of them (remember the cash payments?).  Nevertheless, the court did not penalize this taxpayer in any way, saying that he had made a reasonable attempt to comply with the law.

The U.S. Tax Court weighs “profit motive” most heavily in each of their decisions. Profit is a key decider when considering whether an activity is hobby or business. Is your hobby truly for profit or only for pleasure? That is foremost and basic premise that the Tax Court considers.

What Should You Do?

There seem to be two “hobbies” that trigger audits most frequently and those are horses or yachts. Both are money pits, and so if people can figure out a way to make a business out of them, that will provide either tax deductions and/or income to cover the high expenses of each. The IRS knows this, and is very strict when applying the rules to these activities. When structuring these, pay very close attention to business start-up details.

Regardless, if you follow good business practices when converting your hobby into a business, you have a greater chance of convincing the IRS it is a real business. Your business records must be up-to-date and accurate, and your business plan must lay out a course for creating profit from your activity in the future. That written business plan can be a real asset if you end up in Tax Court versus the IRS.

Don’t Take The Chance And Lose Everything You Have Worked For.

Protect yourself. If you are selected for an audit, stand up to the IRS by getting representation. Tax problems are usually a serious matter and must be handled appropriately so it’s important to that you’ve hired the best lawyer for your particular situation. The tax attorneys at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County (Irvine), San Diego County (Carlsbad) and elsewhere in California are highly skilled in handling tax matters and can effectively represent at all levels with the IRS and State Tax Agencies including criminal tax investigations and attempted prosecutions, undisclosed foreign bank accounts and other foreign assets, and unreported foreign income. Additionally, if you are involved in cannabis, check out what a cannabis tax attorney can do for you.  And if you are involved in crypto currency, check out what a bitcoin tax attorney can do for you.

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