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What is 'Passive Income'

Passive income is earnings derived from a rental property, limited partnership or other enterprise in which a person is not actively involved. As with active income, passive income is usually taxable. However, it is often treated differently by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Portfolio income is considered passive income by some analysts, so dividends and interest would therefore be considered passive.

BREAKING DOWN 'Passive Income'

There are three main categories of income: active income, passive income and portfolio income. Passive income has been a relatively loosely used term in recent years. Colloquially, it’s been used to define money being earned regularly with little or no effort on the part of the person receiving it. Proponents of earning passive income tend to be boosters of a work-from-home and be-your-own-boss professional lifestyle. The type of earnings people usually associate with this are gains on stocks, interest, retirement pay, lottery winnings, online work and capital gains.

While these activities fit the popular definition of passive income, they don’t fit the technical definition as outlined by the IRS. 

Passive income, when used as a technical term, is defined as either "net rental income" or "income from a business in which the taxpayer does not materially participate," and in some cases can include self-charged interest. 

Passive Income and Self-Charged Interest

When money is lent to a partnership or S-corporation acting as a pass-through entity (essentially a business that is designed to reduce the effects of double taxation) by that entity’s owner, the interest income on that loan to the portfolio income can qualify as passive income. As the IRS language reads: "Certain self-charged interest income or deductions may be treated as passive activity gross income or passive activity deductions if the loan proceeds are used in a passive activity."

Passive Income and Property

Rental properties are defined as passive income with a couple of exceptions. If you’re a real estate professional, any rental income you’re making counts as active income. If you’re "self-renting," meaning that you own a space and are renting it out to a corporation or partnership where you conduct business, that does not constitute passive income unless that lease had been signed before 1988, in which case you’ve been grandfathered into having that income being defined as passive. According to the IRS, "it does not matter whether or not the use is under a lease, a service contract, or some other arrangement."

Yet, income from leasing land does not qualify as passive income. Despite this, a land owner can benefit from passive income loss rules if the property nets a loss during the tax year. As far as holding land for investment, any earnings would be considered active. 

Passive Income and "No Material Participation"

If an investor puts $500,000 into a candy store with the agreement that the owners would pay the investor a percentage of earnings, that would be considered passive income as long as the investor does not participate in the operation of the business in any meaningful way other than placing the investment. The IRS states, however, that if the investor did help manage the company with the owners, the investor's income could be seen as active since the investor provided "material participation." 

The IRS has standards for material participation that include the following:

  • If you’ve dedicated more than 500 hours to a business or activity from which you’re profiting, that is material participation.
  • If your participation in an activity has been "substantially all" of the participation for that tax year, that is material participation.
  • If you’ve participated up to 100 hours and that is at least as much as any other person involved in the activity, that also is defined as material participation.

Benefits of Passive Income

When a taxpayer records a loss on a passive activity, only passive activity profits can have their deductions offset instead of the income as a whole. It would be considered prudent for a person to ensure all the passive activities were classified that way so they can make the most of the tax deduction. These deductions are allocated for the next tax year and are applied in a reasonable manner that takes into account the next year's earnings or losses.

Passive Income and Grouping Activities

To save time and effort, a person can group two or more of their passive activities into one larger activity, provided they form an "appropriate economic unit." When a taxpayer does this, instead of having to provide material participation in multiple activities, they only have to provide it for the activity as a whole. In addition, if a person includes multiple activities into one group and has to dispose of one of those activities, they’ve only done away with part of a larger activity as opposed to all of a smaller one. 

The organizing principle behind this grouping, appropriate economic units, is relatively simple: if the activities are located in the same geographic area; if the activities have similarities in the types of business; or if the activities are somehow interdependent, for instance, if they have the same customers, employees or use a single set of books for accounting.

If someone owned a pretzel store and a sneaker store located in malls in both Monterey, Califoria, and Amarillo, Texas, they would have four options for how to group their passive income:

  • grouped into one activity (all businesses were in shopping malls), 
  • grouped by geography (Monterey and Amarillo),
  • grouped by type of business (retail sales of pretzels and shoes), 
  • or they could remain ungrouped. 
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