What are 'Passive Activity Loss Rules'

Passive activity loss rules are a set of IRS rules that prohibit using passive losses to offset earned or ordinary income. Passive activity loss rules prevent investors from using losses incurred from income-producing activities in which they are not materially involved.

Being materially involved with earned or ordinary income-producing activities means the income is active income and may not be reduced by passive losses. Passive losses can be used only to offset passive income.

BREAKING DOWN 'Passive Activity Loss Rules'

The key issue with passive activity loss rules is material participation. According to IRS Topic No. 425, "material participation" is involvement in the operation of a trade or business activity on a "regular, continuous, and substantial basis." If the taxpayer does not materially participate in the activity that is producing the passive losses, then those losses can only be matched against passive income. If there is no passive income, then no loss can be deducted. However, rental activities, including real estate rental activities, are considered passive activities even if there is material participation ("real estate professionals" cannot benefit from this exception).

Passive activity losses can only be applied in the current year, and if they exceed passive income they can be carried forward without limitation; they cannot be carried back.

In general, passive activity loss rules are applied at the individual level, but they also extend to virtually all businesses and rental activity in various reporting entities, except C corporations, in order to deter abusive tax shelters.

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