Saturday, February 21, 2009


Many writers who have written for quite a while but haven't had much success at making a profit ask me how long they have before they must make a profit. Most of them have heard of the presumptive rule that if you make a profit a couple of years out of five you're home free. Almost everybody that's a novice misunderstands the presumptive rule. They seem to believe that it's an absolute rule. That unless you make a profit two of five years, you're out of luck. But it's not. It says nothing about how long you have to make a profit to have a valid profit motive. There is no absolute rule to that effect. The presumptive rule just says that if you have a profit two of five years, IRS will assume you have a profit motive.

So how long do you have? Far be it from me to say with exactitude. That is not the nature of taxation or of law, for that matter.

John Ellsworth had losses for thirteen years. Big losses. They ranged from over $21,000 to over $74,000. They probably averaged around $55,000 per year. He wasn't a writer, though. He was a cattle breeder. And it wasn't as though he didn't have revenue from his activity. Beginning with the third year, he had substantial gross profit. It's just that his operating expenses above and beyond the costs of purchasing cattle exceeded his gross profit.

Another crucial factor in Ellsworth's case is that he was getting back into cattle breeding after having been successful in it in his earlier life. He was quite old --- I believe 65 --- when he entered into this thirteen-year stint of substantial losses. The court was convinced that it takes about 10 to 15 years to develop a breeding herd with the superior strain and of substantial commercial value. They were satisfied that Ellsworth devoted sufficient time and effort to the enterprise to conclude that it wasn't some lark. You don't do all that work --- even though he employed 12 full-time employees to do all of the heavy lifting --- as a hobby.

How many years does it take? Your guess is as good as mine. It all depends. It depends on whether you can convince the court of three things:

  • You conducted your activity in a businesslike way
  • You had sufficient expertise in your activity and worked at gaining more expertise
  • You worked at your activity regularly and sufficiently

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