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Tips For Traders: Preparing 2020 Tax Returns, Extensions, And 475 Elections

Traders use various tax forms as the IRS hasn’t created specialized tax forms for individual trading businesses. Traders enter gains and losses, portfolio income, and business expenses on different forms. It’s often confusing. Which form should forex traders use? Which form is correct for securities traders using the Section 475 MTM method? Can one report trading gains directly on a Schedule C? The different reporting strategies for various types of traders make tax time not so cut-and-dry.

Sole Proprietor Trading Business 

Trader tax status (TTS) constitutes business expense treatment and unlocks an assortment of meaningful tax benefits for active traders who qualify. The first step is to determine eligibility. Our golden rules require four trades per day, close to four days per week, and an average holding period under 31 days. See all the requirements at Trader Tax Status: How To Qualify.

If a trader qualifies for TTS, he can claim some tax breaks after the fact (such as business expense treatment) and elect and set up other benefits (such as Section 475 MTM and employee-benefit plans) on a timely basis. You can assess and claim TTS business expense deductions for all or part of 2020.

Other sole-proprietorship businesses report revenue, cost of goods sold, and expenses on Schedule C. But TTS business traders report only trading business expenses on Schedule C. Trading gains and losses are reported on various forms, depending on the situation. 

Trading Gains and Losses

Sales of securities must be first reported (line by line) on Form 8949 based on the realization method with cost basis adjustments, including wash sale (WS) losses. Form 8949 then feeds into Schedule D short-term capital gains using the ordinary tax rate and long-term capital gains for securities held 12 months using the lower capital gains rate. Capital losses offset capital gains in full, and net capital losses are limited to $3,000 per year against ordinary income (the rest is a capital loss carryover to subsequent years). 

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Some brokers provide Form 8949 in addition to Form 1099-B. Consider using trade accounting software to calculate WS loss adjustments. See Form 8949 & 1099-B Issues.

TTS traders who use Section 475 MTM accounting on securities report their TTS trades (line by line) on Form 4797 Part II. “MTM” means open positions are marked-to-market at year-end. Form 4797 Part II has business ordinary loss treatment and avoids the capital loss limitation and wash-sale loss adjustments. Form 4797 losses are included in net operating loss (NOL) calculations. Consider using trade accounting software to generate Form 4797 for Section 475 trades. Without wash sale losses, the trader will be departing from the 1099-B and should explain that in a tax return footnote. 

Section 1256 contracts (i.e., regulated futures contracts) use MTM accounting and are reported on Form 6781 (unless the TTS trader elected Section 475 for commodities/futures; in that case Form 4797 is used). Section 1256 traders rely on a one-page Form 1099-B showing their net trading gain or loss (“aggregate profit or loss on contracts”). They may simply enter that amount in summary form on Form 6781 Part I. There are no wash-sale losses on 1256 contracts. 

Section 1256 contracts have lower 60/40 capital gains tax rates: 60% (including day trades) subject to lower long-term capital gains rates, and 40% taxed as short-term capital gains using the ordinary rate. At the maximum tax bracket for 2020, the blended 60/40 rate is 26.8% — 10.2% lower than the highest ordinary rate of 37%. See Section 1256 Contracts.

If the trader had a significant Section 1256 loss in 2020, she should consider carrying back those losses three tax years but only apply against Section 1256 gains in those years. To obtain this election, check box D labeled “Net section 1256 contracts loss election” on the top of Form 6781. You can make this election with a tax return filed on time, including extensions.

Forex traded in the Interbank market uses Section 988 ordinary gain or loss treatment. Forex traders who don’t qualify for TTS should use line 8 (other income or loss) on 2020 Schedule 1 (Form 1040). TTS forex traders should use Form 4797, Part II ordinary gain or loss. What’s the difference? Form 4797 Part II losses contribute to NOL carryforwards against any type of income, whereas Form 1040’s “other losses” do not. The latter is wasted if the taxpayer has a negative income. 

In that case, a contemporaneous forex capital gains election is better on the Section 988 trades. If the taxpayer filed the Section 988 opt-out (capital gains) election, she should use Form 8949 for minor currencies and Form 6781 for major currencies. Forex uses summary reporting. See Forex.

Selling, exchanging, or using cryptocurrency triggers capital gains and losses. The IRS treats cryptocurrencies as intangible property. The realization method applies to short-term vs. long-term capital gains and losses, and there is no WS or 475 on intangible property. Report a capital gain or loss on each transaction, including cryptocurrency-to-currency sales, crypto-to-crypto trades, and purchases of goods or services using crypto. Answer the IRS question about cryptocurrency on the 2020 Form 1040 page 1 up top. 

For tax treatment on options, ETFs, ETNs, precious metals, foreign futures, and swaps, see Tax Treatment On Financial Products.

Business Expenses on Schedule C

TTS allows a trader to add a Schedule C to deduct business expenses, including these items:

  • “Tangible personal property” up to $2,500 per item for equipment and furniture.
  • Section 179 (100%) depreciation on fixed assets. Otherwise, bonus and regular depreciation.
  • Amortization of start-up costs (Section 195), organization costs (Section 248), and software.
  • Education expenses paid and courses taken after the commencement of TTS. Otherwise, pre-business education may not be deductible. (Alternatively, include pre-business education in Section 195 start-up costs.) 
  • Subscriptions, scanners, publications, market data, professional services, chat rooms, mentors, coaches, supplies, phone, travel, seminars, conferences, assistants, and consultants.
  • Home-office expenses for the business portion of the home.
  • Margin interest expenses.
  • Stock-borrow fees for short-sellers.
  • Internal-use software for self-created automated trading systems.

Home office (HO) expenses are first reported on Form 8829. HO is one of the most significant tax deductions for traders. It requires trading gains to unlock most of the deduction; mortgage interest and real estate tax portions of HO do not require income. 

When commencing TTS, look back six months to capitalize Section 195 start-up costs, including trading education expenses. The trader can expense (amortize) up to $5,000 in the first year and the balance over 15 years. 

Make Schedule C Look Better

The IRS may view a trading business’s Schedule C as unprofitable even if it has significant net trading gains on other forms and is profitable after expenses. 

To mitigate this red flag, transfer a portion of business trading gains to Schedule C “Other Income” (not revenue) to zero the expenses out but not show a net profit. Showing a profit could cause the IRS to inquire about self-employment (SE) tax on self-employment income (SEI). Trading expenses reduce SEI, but trading gains and losses are not SEI. Learn how to do this transfer strategy in Green’s 2021 Trader Tax Guide

Section 475 MTM Accounting

Only TTS traders can elect and use Section 475, not investors. Section 475 trades are exempt from WS loss adjustments on securities. Section 475 ordinary losses are also not subject to the $3,000 capital loss limitation against ordinary income. Section 475 losses and TTS expenses contribute to net operating losses (NOLs). Hence our phrase “tax loss insurance.”

We usually recommend a Section 475 election on securities only to retain lower 60/40 capital gains rates on Section 1256 contracts (commodities). 

Profitable traders might also benefit from Section 475. TCJA introduced a 20% deduction on qualified business income (QBI) in pass-through businesses, and TTS traders with 475 elections are eligible for the deduction. QBI includes Section 475 income less TTS expenses. However, QBI excludes capital gains and other portfolio income. TTS traders are a “specified service activity,” which means if their taxable income is above an income cap, they won’t receive a QBI deduction. The 2020 taxable income (TI) cap is $426,600/$213,300 (married/other taxpayers). The phase-out range below the cap is $100,000/$50,000 (married/other taxpayers). The W-2 wage and property basis limitations also apply within the phase-out range. Use Form 8995 or Form 8995-A for QBI deductions. 

Section 475 Election Procedures

To obtain Section 475 as an individual, you must file a 2021 Section 475 election statement with your 2020 tax return or extension due by April 15, 2021. Existing partnerships and S-Corps must file a Section 475 election statement by March 15, 2021. 

“New taxpayers” like new entities file an internal Section 475 MTM election resolution within 75 days of inception.

Traders who filed a 475 election for 2020 on time (by July 15, 2020, for individuals) must complete the process by sending a Form 3115 with the 2020 tax return and a duplicate to the national office. 

Learn more about Section 475, the pros, cons, and nuances in Green’s 2021 Trader Tax Guide. The guide includes the election statement to use with your filing. 

Tax Extensions

The 2020 income tax returns for individuals are due by April 15, 2021 — however, most active traders aren’t ready to file a complete tax return by then. Some brokers issue corrected 1099-Bs right up to the deadline or even beyond. Many partnerships and S-Corps file extensions by March 15, 2021, and don’t issue final Schedule K-1s to investors until after April 15. 

The excellent news is traders don’t have to rush the completion of their tax returns by April 15. They may want to consider sending a one-page automatic extension along with payment of taxes owed to the IRS and state. (The IRS postponed the April 15, 2021 tax deadline until June 15, 2021, for residents in all counties in Texas after a federal disaster declaration in February 2021. This postponement might also apply to the Section 475 election.) 

Traders can request an automatic six-month extension on Form 4868 to file their federal income tax return by Oct. 15, 2021. States also provide tax extensions, with some states accepting the federal election; however, if the taxpayer owes state taxes, a state tax voucher/extension form is required. 

The Form 4868 instructions point out how easy it is to get this automatic extension — no reason is required. It’s an extension of time to file a complete tax return, not an extension of time to pay taxes owed. The taxpayer should estimate and report what he thinks he owes for 2020 based on his received tax information.

See how the IRS assesses late-filing penalties and late-payment penalties on page two of Form 4868. If a taxpayer cannot pay the taxes owed, he should estimate the balance due by April 15 and report it on the extension. 

Even if a taxpayer cannot pay the balance due, he should at least file Form 4868 by April 15, 2021. Merely filing the extension will avoid the late-filing penalties of 5% per month up to 25%, which are 10 times higher than the late-payment penalty of 0.5% per month up to 25%. The IRS charges interest, too. 

Many traders made massive trading gains in 2020 with an explosion of new pandemic-fueled traders and market volatility. Some used the estimated tax payment “safe harbor” exception to cover their 2019 tax liability with a Q4 2020 estimated tax payment made by Jan. 15, 2021. They plan to pay the balance of taxes owed by April 15, 2021. They should consider setting aside and protecting those tax payments. See Traders Should Focus On Q4 Estimated Taxes Due January 15.

Some traders will risk those 2020 tax payments in the markets right up to the deadline, and they should be careful not to lose them because that will cause significant tax trouble with the IRS and state. 

Partnerships and S-Corps

The 2020 partnership and S-Corp tax extensions are due March 15, 2021. They are easy to prepare since they pass income and loss to the owner, usually an individual. Generally, pass-through entities are tax-filers but not taxpayers.

S-Corps and partnerships use Form 7004 (Application for Automatic Extension of Time To File Certain Business Income Tax, Information, and Other Returns). Extensions give six additional months to file a federal tax return — by Sept. 15, 2021.

Your must file the partnership or S-Corp extension on time. Otherwise, late-filing penalties apply $210 per month per owner up to 12 months. See the Form 1065 and 1120S instructions for further details about penalties.  

Some states require a state extension, whereas others accept a federal extension. Some states have S-Corp franchise taxes, excise taxes, minimum taxes, and payments usually due to the extensions by March 15. LLCs filing as partnerships may have minimum taxes or annual reports due to the extension by March 15. States assess penalties and interest, often based on payments due.

Recent Tax Law Changes

The 2017 Tax Cuts And Jobs Act (TCJA) introduced an “excess business loss” limitation: $500,000 married and $250,000 other taxpayers for 2018, and it’s indexed for inflation each year. Business losses exceeding the EBL limitation are a NOL carryforward. TCJA also suspended NOL carrybacks, allowing NOL carryforwards with 80% limits against subsequent year’s taxable income. The rest carries forward indefinitely. 

The 2020 CARES Act provided temporary tax relief: It suspended TCJA’s EBL rules for 2018 through 2020 and allowed five-year NOL carrybacks for 2018, 2019, and 2020. TCJA EBL and NOL rules apply again in 2021. 

For other recent tax law changes that impact traders, see TCJACARES Act, and Emergency $900 Billion Pandemic Relief.

We expect tax legislation in 2021 that impacts traders, so stay tuned to our blog post for updates. 

Takeaway

Traders should focus on the big picture of filing a 2020 automatic extension by the April 15, 2021 deadline. With or without sufficient payment of taxes, filing the extension avoids the late-filing penalty of 5% per month, assessed on the tax balance due. Try to pay 90% of the tax liability to avoid the late-payment penalty of 0.5% per month. Traders unsure of TTS qualification can leave out Schedule C trading expenses from the tax liability calculations used for the extension filing and settle that issue before filing the complete tax return later. The most important issue might be a 2021 Section 475 election due with the 2020 extension by April 15, 2021, for individuals, and March 15, 2021, for partnerships and S-Corps. Overpaying the extension payment is wise for profitable traders to apply the overpayment credit towards 2021 quarterly estimated taxes. It also leaves a cushion on 2020 taxes.

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