What Is Passive Income?

Passive income is earnings derived from a rental property, limited partnership, or other enterprises in which a person is not actively involved. As with active income, passive income is usually taxable, but it is often treated differently by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Understanding Passive Income

There are three main categories of income: active income, passive income, and portfolio income. Passive incomes include earnings from a rental property, limited partnership, or other business in which a person is not actively involved—a silent investor, for example.

Proponents of earning passive income tend to be boosters of a work-from-home and be-your-own-boss professional lifestyle. Passive income has been a relatively loosely used term in recent years. Colloquially, it’s been used to define money being earned regularly with little or no effort on the part of the person receiving it.

Passive income, when used as a technical term, is defined by the IRS as either “net rental income” or “income from a business in which the taxpayer does not materially participate,” and in some cases can include self-charged interest.

Types of Passive Income

Passive income includes self-charged interest, rental properties, and businesses in which the person receiving income does not materially participate. There are specific IRS rules that need to be followed for income to be considered passive.

Self-charged interest

When money is loaned to a partnership or an S corporation acting as a pass-through entity (essentially, a business designed to reduce the effects of double taxation) by that entity’s owner, the interest income on that loan to the portfolio income can qualify as passive income. “Certain self-charged interest income or deductions may be treated as passive activity gross income or passive activity deductions if the loan proceeds are used in a passive activity,” the IRS states.

Rental properties

Rental properties are defined as passive income with a couple of exceptions. If you’re a real estate professional, any rental income that you’re making counts as active income. If you’re “self-renting,” meaning that you own a space and are renting it out to a corporation or partnership where you conduct business, that does not constitute passive income—unless that lease had been signed before 1988, in which case you’ve been exempted into having that income defined as passive.

Income from leasing land does not qualify as passive income, either. However, a landowner can benefit from passive income loss rules if the property nets a loss during the tax year.

Special Considerations

When you record a loss on a passive activity, only passive activity profits can have their deductions offset as opposed to the income as a whole. It would be prudent to ensure that all your passive activities were classified that way, to make the most of the tax deduction. These deductions are allocated for the next tax year and are applied in a reasonable manner that takes into account the next year’s earnings or losses.

To save time and effort, you can group two or more passive activities into one larger activity, provided that you form an “appropriate economic unit,” according to the IRS. When you do this, instead of having to provide material participation in multiple activities, you only have to provide it for the activity as a whole. In addition, if you include multiple activities in one group and have to dispose of one of those activities, you’ve only done away with part of a larger activity as opposed to all of a smaller one.

The organizing principle behind this grouping is relatively simple: if the activities are located in the same geographic area; if the activities have similarities in the types of business; or if the activities are somehow interdependent—for instance, if they have the same customers, employees, or use a single set of books for accounting.

For example, if you owned a pretzel store and a sneaker store located in malls in both Monterey, Calif., and Amarillo, Texas, you would have four options for how to group their passive income:

  • Grouped into one activity (both businesses were in shopping malls)
  • Grouped by geography (Monterey and Amarillo)
  • Grouped by type of business (retail sales of pretzels and shoes)
  • Or they could remain ungrouped
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