Hobby or Business: The IRS Takes a Stand

From a tax perspective, the distinction between hobbies and businesses is important because businesses can deduct losses, but hobbies cannot. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) kept the itemized deductions for allocable mortgage interest and property taxes. However, by eliminating virtually all miscellaneous itemized deductions for tax years 2018-2025, the 2017 TCJA made it advantageous for hobbies to be categorized as businesses. Prior to the TCJA, hobbyists were able to deduct hobby-related expenses, subject to specific income limits, on Schedule A.

As a general rule, the IRS views a hobby as a business if it produces positive taxable income for at least three out of the past five years. Other than that, the rules are not straightforward. If the hobbyist can’t prove his or her hobby is a business, losses cannot be deducted. 
Here are four things the IRS looks at to determine whether a hobby is a business:

  1. Accurate records 
    1. Keep extensive records and receipts for all items related to the hobby.
    2. Keep your business expenses and personal expenses separate.
    3. Set up a business checking account to prove hobby-related profits and expenses are not commingled with personal expenses. 
    4. Maintain a business website or social media presence to show you are actively selling hobby-related goods or services.
    5. Collect sales tax as appropriate under federal, state, and local law.
  1. Intent. Writing a business plan that sets out goals and strategies showing a path to profitability demonstrates intent to turn a hobby into a business. In addition, it is helpful to be able to prove:
    1. Dependence on income from the hobby for your livelihood.
    2. Amount of time and effort spent trying to make the hobby profitable.
    3. Any losses that are due to circumstances beyond your control
      (e.g., COVID-19).
    4. Changes in operations that were intended to increase profits (e.g., enhancing your online platform or selling goods or services on platforms
      like Etsy).
  1. Knowledge – Showing knowledge about business in general and the hobby in particular, such as an understanding of how the marketplace operates, helps prove intent.
  2. History – Another way to prove intent to turn the hobby into a profitable business is providing proof of a history of prior business success.

Most hobbies are intended to be recreational. They aren’t usually intended to be for-profit businesses. COVID-19 may have changed that for many people, but the IRS still needs to be convinced. If you follow the guidelines as noted here, there is a better chance the IRS will view the endeavor as a business even if it operates at a loss. 

This is just an introduction to a complex topic—there are many provisions and subtleties. Contact R&A for advice on the tax implications of your hobby-turned-business.©

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About this Author

Laura specializes in income tax return preparation, compliance, and research for individuals and businesses. She also is experienced in preparing compiled and reviewed financial statements, individual and S-Corporation taxation, multi-state taxation, and income tax credits including the R&D credit.