Passive Activity

What Is Passive Activity?

Passive activity is an income-generating activity that a taxpayer did not materially participate in during the tax year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines two types of passive activity: trade or business activities in which the taxpayer doesn't materially participate. Unless the taxpayer is a real estate professional, rental activities usually provide streams of income that are passive. The IRS defines material participation as involvement in the activity of the business on a regular, continuous, and substantial basis.

Passive activity rules apply to individuals, estates, trusts, closely held corporations, and personal service corporations.

Key Takeaways

  • The IRS sets and defines the rules for passive activity loss.
  • Passive activity loss rules can be applied to businesses and individuals, except C corporations.
  • Leasing equipment, home rentals, and limited partnership are all considered examples of common passive activity.
  • When investors are not materially involved they can claim passive losses from investments like rental properties. 

Understanding Passive Activity

Making a distinction between passive and active income is important for several reasons. A taxpayer can claim a passive loss against income generated from passive activities; however, a passive loss cannot be claimed against active income. This corresponds with the IRS' passive activity loss rules.

Active income refers to income generated from performing a service. This includes wages, tips, salaries, and commissions, as well as income from businesses in which the taxpayer substantially participates. For example, if a taxpayer founded a company, built and sold products, hired employees, and raised funds, these are highly active aspects of participation.

Individuals who rent out second homes or own more than one residence are advised by experts to seek out professional accountants to verify whether a loss can be classified as passive.

Excess passive activity loss can be carried forward to future years although it cannot be carried back.

Special Considerations

Many high-net-worth individuals employ tax strategies that include passive activities as key means of reducing taxable income. A high-net-worth individual (HNWI) is defined as a single individual or a family with a net worth in terms of liquid assets over $1 million; however, the exact cutoff figure differs by financial institution and region. (Those with assets north of ~$30 million are generally considered ultra-high net worth individuals.)

High net worth individuals usually qualify for additional preferential treatment with regards to investments in addition to being able to take advantage of tax strategies. (The average person does not generally have enough wealth to justify the time and cost of hiring a tax expert and/or building strategies to match active and passive income streams.)

These include access to alternative investments and possible participation in initial public offerings or IPOs through their broker. Private wealth managers jockey for the business of many HNWIs, offering highly personalized services in investment management, estate planning, tax planning, and more.

Is Income from Passive Activity Taxable?

Yes, the IRS taxes passive income, often at the same marginal tax rate as ordinary (active) income.

What Is a Passive Loss?

A passive loss occurs when net losses are generated from passive activities such as investments, leases, rental real estate, or partnerships (among others). Passive losses are reported to the IRS on your tax return and may be used to offset passive gains for that year. Passive losses cannot be used to offset gains from active activities or ordinary income.

What Makes an Activity Passive for Tax Purposes?

A passive activity is one wherein the taxpayer does not materially participate in its ongoing operations.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 425 Passive Activities – Losses and Credits."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 925 (2021), Passive Activity and At-Risk Rules."

  3. Capgemini. "World Wealth Report 2019." Accessed Jan. 9, 2020.