A tax loss carryforward is a special tax rule that allows capital losses to be carried over from one year to another. In other words, capital losses realized in the current tax year can also be used to offset gains or profits in a future tax year.
Investors can use a capital loss carryforward to minimize their tax liability when reporting capital gains from investments. Business owners can also take advantage of loss carryforward rules when deducting losses each year.
Knowing how this tax provision works, and when it can be applied, is important from an investment tax-savings perspective.
What Is Tax Loss Carryforward?
Tax loss carryforward is the process of carrying forward capital losses into future tax years. A capital loss occurs when you sell an asset for less than your adjusted basis. Capital losses are the opposite of capital gains, which are realized when you sell an asset for more than your adjusted basis.
Adjusted basis simply means the cost of an asset, adjusted for various events (i.e. increases or decreases in value) through the course of ownership. Whether a capital gain or capital loss is short-term or long-term depends on how long you owned it before selling. Short-term capital losses and gains apply when an asset is held for one year or less, while long-term capital gains and losses are associated with assets held for longer than one year.
The Internal Revenue Service allows certain capital losses, including losses associated with personal or business investments, to be deducted from taxable income. There are limits on the amount that can be deducted each year, however, which depend on the type of losses that are being reported.
In order to allow taxpayers to claim the full capital loss deduction they’re entitled to, the IRS makes it possible to carry tax losses forward into future years.
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How Tax Loss Carryforwards Work
In general terms, a tax loss carryforward works by allowing you to report losses realized on assets in one tax year on a future year’s tax return. IRS loss carryforward rules apply to both personal and business assets. The main types of carryforwards allowed by the Internal Revenue Code are capital loss carryforwards and net operating loss carryforwards.
Capital Loss Carryforward
IRS rules allow investors to “harvest” tax losses, meaning they use capital losses to offset capital gains. An investor could sell an investment at a capital loss, then deduct that loss against capital gains from other investments, assuming they don’t violate the wash sale rule.
The wash sale rule prohibits investors from buying substantially identical investments within the 30 days before or 30 days after the sale of a security for the purposes of tax-loss harvesting.
If capital losses are equal to capital gains, they would offset one another on your tax return, so there’d be nothing to carry over. For example, a $5,000 capital gain would cancel out a $5,000 capital loss and vice versa.
If capital losses exceed capital gains, you can claim the lesser of $3,000 ($1,500 if married filing separately) or your total net loss shown on line 21 of Schedule D for Form 1040. Any capital losses in excess of $3,000 could be carried forward to future tax years. The IRS allows you to carry losses forward indefinitely.
Net Operating Loss Carryforward
A net operating loss (NOL) occurs when a business has more deductions than income. Rather than posting a profit for the year, the business operates at a loss. Business owners may be able to claim a NOL deduction on their personal income taxes. Net operating loss carryforward rules work similar to capital loss carryforward rules, in that businesses can carry forward losses from one year to the next.
For losses arising in tax years after December 31, 2020, the NOL deduction is limited to 80% of the excess of the business’s taxable income, according to the IRS. To calculate net operating loss deductions for your business, you first have to omit items that could limit your loss, including:
• Capital losses that exceed capital gains
• Nonbusiness deductions that exceed nonbusiness income
• Qualified business income deductions
• The net operating loss deduction itself
These losses can be carried forward indefinitely at the federal level.
Note, however, that the rules for NOL carryforwards at the state level vary widely. Some states follow the federal rules, but others do not.
How Long Can Losses Be Carried Forward?
According to the IRS, tax loss carryforward rules allowed losses to be carried forward indefinitely. That includes both capital losses associated with the sale of investments or other assets, as well as net operating losses for a business. Prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, business owners were limited to a 20-year window when carrying forward net operating losses.
It’s important to keep in mind that capital loss carryforward rules don’t allow you to simply roll over losses. IRS rules state that you must use capital losses to offset capital gains in the year that they occur. You can only carry capital losses forward if they exceed your capital gains for the year. The IRS also requires you to use an apples-to-apples approach when applying capital losses against capital gains.
For example, you’d need to use short-term capital losses to offset short-term capital gains. You couldn’t use a short-term capital loss to balance out a long-term capital gain or a long-term capital loss to offset a short-term capital gain. This rule applies because short- and long-term capital gains are subject to different tax rates.
Example of Tax Loss Carryforward
Assume that you purchase 100 shares of XYZ stock at $50 each. Thirteen months after purchasing the shares, their value has doubled to $100 each so you decide to sell, collecting a capital gain of $5,000. You also hold 100 shares of ABC stock, which have decreased in value from $70 per share to $10 per share over that same time period.
Your capital losses would total $6,000 (the difference between the $7,000 you paid for the shares and the $1,000 you sold them for). You could use $5,000 of that loss to offset the $5,000 gain associated with selling your shares in the first company. Per IRS rules, you could also apply the additional $1,000 loss to reduce your ordinary income for the year.
Now, say you also have another stock that you sold at a $5,000 loss. You could apply $2,000 of that loss to offset ordinary income, then carry the remaining $3,000 forward to a future tax year, per IRS rules. All of this, of course, assumes that you don’t violate the wash sale rule when timing the sale of losing stocks.
If you’re investing in a taxable brokerage account, it’s important to include tax planning as part of your strategy. Selling stocks to realize capital gains could result in a larger tax bill if you’re not deducting capital losses at the same time. With tax-loss harvesting, assuming you don’t violate the wash sale rule, it’s possible to carry forward investment losses to help reduce the tax impact of gains over time. This applies to personal as well as business gains and losses. Thus, understanding the tax loss carryforward provision may help reduce your personal as well as investment taxes.
In order to understand the true impact of gains and losses, it may help to open an investment account with SoFi Invest®. Here you can trade stocks as well as ETFs and even cryptocurrency. Even better, as a SoFi Member you have access to financial professionals who can offer complimentary guidance and answer your most pressing investing questions.
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