Carryback and Carryforward of Net Operating Losses

Loss Carryback vs. Loss Carryforward

Net Operating Loss (NOL) carryback and carryforward are provisions that allow businesses to utilize losses incurred in one year to offset taxable income in other years, thus reducing their overall tax liability. 

  • Loss Carryback: This allows businesses to apply an NOL to past tax years, typically up to two years, and claim a refund for taxes previously paid. This provision helps businesses recover taxes from profitable years, providing immediate financial relief. 
  • Loss Carryforward: If the loss cannot be fully utilized through a carryback, or if carryback is not allowed, the NOL can be carried forward to future tax years, often up to 20 years or indefinitely, depending on current tax laws. This helps businesses reduce taxable income in profitable years to come.

The Basic Rules for Using an NOL

  • Calculate the NOL: Determine the net operating loss by subtracting allowable deductions from gross income. 
  • Carryback the NOL: Apply the NOL to the earliest of the past two tax years (for example, 2021 NOL can be applied to 2019 and then 2020). File amended tax returns for these years to claim a refund. 
  • Carryforward the Remaining NOL: If any NOL remains after carryback, carry it forward to offset taxable income in future years. Keep track of the remaining NOL each year until it is fully utilized. 
  • Apply Limitations: Be aware of limitations and adjustments, such as the Section 382 limitation, which restricts the use of NOLs following a change in ownership.

The Section 382 Limitation

Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code limits the amount of NOLs and certain built-in losses that a company can use after experiencing an ownership change. An ownership change occurs when there is a significant shift in the ownership of a company’s stock, typically defined as an increase of more than 50% in the ownership of major shareholders over a three-year period. 

  • Limitation Calculation: The limit is determined by multiplying the fair market value of the company’s equity immediately before the ownership change by the long-term tax-exempt rate. 
  • Impact: This can significantly reduce the ability to use NOLs to offset future taxable income, making it crucial for companies undergoing ownership changes to plan their tax strategy carefully.

Maximizing Your Loss Deduction

To maximize the benefits of NOL carrybacks and carryforwards: 

  • Strategic Timing: Carefully time the recognition of income and expenses to optimize the use of NOLs. For example, defer income to a future year when you can offset it with a carryforward NOL. 
  • Detailed Record-Keeping: Maintain thorough records of NOL calculations, carryback claims, and carryforward amounts to ensure accurate and efficient use. 
  • Understand Limitations: Be aware of and plan for limitations such as Section 382 to avoid unexpected restrictions on NOL usage. 
  • Professional Guidance: Consult with tax professionals to navigate complex tax rules and maximize the strategic use of NOLs for your business.

Key Takeaways

  • Loss Carryback: Apply NOLs to past tax years to claim refunds for taxes paid, providing immediate financial relief. 
  • Loss Carryforward: Use NOLs to offset future taxable income, reducing future tax liabilities. 
  • Section 382 Limitation: Restricts NOL usage after significant ownership changes, impacting tax strategy. 
  • Maximizing Deductions: Strategic timing, detailed record-keeping, understanding limitations, and professional guidance are essential to optimize NOL benefits. 

Understanding and effectively utilizing NOL carrybacks and carryforwards can significantly impact a company’s tax strategy, providing crucial financial support during periods of loss and enhancing long-term financial planning.


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