Claim and Defend Your Trader Status

Just because you call yourself a securities trader doesn’t make you one in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. In fact, Uncle Sam is predisposed to consider you merely an investor, and thus deny you more favorable tax status, unless you meet a number of tests that are frustratingly open to interpretation.

That’s right: the tax code contains no actual definition of trader status. Instead, the IRS has issued guidelines that the courts have further delineated by case law, most of which denied taxpayer appeals. What we’re left with is a blurred image, like a photograph of a trader taken from a speeding car.

According to the IRS, to qualify as a trader:

• You must seek to profit from daily market movements in the prices of securities and not from dividends, interest or capital appreciation;
• Your activity must be substantial, and
• You must carry on the activity with continuity and regularity.

To help determine if you meet these three tests, the IRS considers these qualifiers:

• Typical holding periods for securities bought and sold;
• Frequency and dollar amount of trades during the year;
• Extent to which you pursue trading to produce income for a livelihood, and
• Amount of time you devote to the activity.

Swoosh, right? What is “substantial” activity? “Continuity and regularity?” And what’s an acceptable holding period? Is a week too long? A month?

We know who investors are: They’re our hardworking neighbors who buy securities and hold them for such long-term goals as a college fund or retirement.

Traders, on the other hand, buy and sell securities solely to take advantage of short-term market changes. Your profits come from price swings, not dividends and interests. Since your holding period is brief, often a day at most (hence the term “day trader”), there’s no need to perform due diligence on the companies you trade.

Who cares how the IRS classifies you? You do! Investors are subject to the 2% threshold for deductible investment expenses (and hence cannot write off most of their expenses) and are limited to a $3,000 capital loss deduction. But as a trader, you write off 100% of your expenses, and if you elect the mark to market accounting option, can offset all of your losses against income.

Here’s how to claim and protect your trader status:

Step one: Prove beyond doubt that you are a bona fide trader; that is, you “seek to profit from daily market movements.” The best way to accomplish this is by showing a pattern of high trading volume and short holding periods. Keep your personal investments well separated from your trading business. The IRS is looking for “earnest intent;” that is, you work diligently to manage transactions, conduct strategy sessions and make frequent trades.

Step two: Clear the “substantial activity” hurdle. The hallmarks the feds are looking for here are “frequent, regular and continuous” trading. That means volume. One court case ruled that 75 trades a year was insufficient to warrant trader status. The feds need to know that you approach this as a business, not a hobby. Fail to convince them of that and you’re back in investor-land.

Step three: Trade with “continuity and regularity.” If you want business status, it only stands to reason that you must actually be in and remain in business. Here’s where the IRS is looking for a healthy flow of trades, significant dollar amounts, short holding periods, all the signs that your are at least attempting to make a living as a trader. If you take the summer off or show other gaps in your trading, the IRS will be disinclined to grant you trader status. If you’re a newbie and flame out after nine months, while it seems unfair, the IRS has made it clear: no trader status for you.

Once you obtain trader status, you’re not entirely in the clear. Owing to the capricious nature of appellate rulings and the ever-evolving tax code, there are no guarantees that the trader status you enjoy today might not be gone tomorrow.

One good way to claim and protect your trader status is to trade under the umbrella of a business. Not only is that where the biggest tax advantages reside, but a legal entity such as a C corporation or Limited Liability Company sends a strong message to the IRS that yours is an earnest and legitimate business enterprise worthy of trader tax status.

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