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Farm income averaging can be a useful planning tool

By Brian E. Ravencraft

As we all know too well, farming incomes can fluctuate from year to year depending on yields, market conditions, and of course the Ohio weather. In certain years a farmer could have large profits subject to higher tax rates, while in the following year have a loss or little profit that results in a minimal tax liability. Due to the uncertain variables that affect farming, farmers should consider using farm income averaging.

 

What is farm Income Averaging (FIA)?

Farm income averaging (FIA) is a tax management tool that can be elected after the end of the tax year. In simple terms, farm income averaging allows you to spread a certain amount of your farm income over three years. If you are in a higher tax bracket in the current year and the three preceding years in a lower tax bracket, you will be able to reduce this year’s federal tax liability. The spreading of the income is done equally over the past three years and you cannot pick and choose how much to allocate to each year. There is no change to income reported for the 3 base years. Rather, the unused portion of the tax brackets (of the three base years) are used in the FIA calculation to determine the current year tax liability.

Farm income averaging does not create or increase alternative minimum tax (AMT), and FIA does not reduce your self-employment tax. However, if your adjusted gross income is above certain levels, you will still be subject to the net investment income tax.

It is not necessary for the individual to have been engaged in farming in any prior year; it is only necessary that the individual be engaged in farming in the current year. Also, it is not necessary that an individual have any specific percentage of gross receipts from farm sources to use farm income averaging. An individual engaged in a farming business includes a sole proprietor, a partner, and a shareholder in an S corporation. Estates and trusts are not individuals for this purpose and cannot use income averaging.

 

What constitutes farm income for purposes of FIA?

The IRS defines a farming business as one involved in the trade of cultivating land or the raising or harvesting of any agricultural or horticultural commodity. This excludes buying and reselling plants or animals raised by someone else, or the harvesting under contract of agricultural or horticultural commodities grown by someone else.

Farm income includes items of income, deduction, gain, and loss attributable to the individual’s farming business. Some examples of what does and does not constitute farm income are as follows:

  1. Rental income based on a share of production from a tenant’s farming business is farm income regardless of whether the taxpayer materially participates if the income is determined under a written agreement.
  2. Cash rent farmers are excluded from utilizing FIA.
  3. Income, gain, or loss from the sale of development rights, grazing rights, and other similar rights are not treated as farm income.
  4. Compensation received by an employee generally is not farm income; however, a shareholder of an S corporation engaged in farming may treat compensation from the corporation that is attributable to the farming business as farming income.
  5. Gain on the sale or other disposition of property (other than land) the taxpayer regularly used in a farming business for a substantial period of time (as determined by all the facts and circumstances) can be treated as elected farm income.

A very important consideration: You should not automatically assume that all of the farm income should be elected farm income. In some instances, it may be advantageous for the elected farm income amount to be a lesser amount, depending on the taxpayer’s current and prior year marginal tax rates.

 

Other points to consider on income averaging

  • Where profits are rising, FIA yields an immediate benefit,
  • Where profits are falling, the taxable profit resulting from FIA will be higher than it would have been if FIA was not used.
  • Once made, the election may be revoked with permission from the IRS; therefore, it is important that all relevant factors be considered.
  • Farm families whose non-farm income has increased sharply (new off-farm job) would be eligible to average their farm income and perhaps reduce their current tax liability. Only the farm income is eligible for the averaging.
  • Retiring farmers and others disposing of assets may also be able to take advantage of FIA.

Income averaging can be a tool for a farmer in a situation in which the usual tax strategies do not work; however, FIA is not a substitute for important year-end planning considerations to minimize a farmer’s tax liability. 

Brian E. Ravencraft, CPA, CGMA is a Principal with Holbrook & Manter, CPAs. Brian has been with Holbrook & Manter since 1995, primarily focusing on the areas of Tax Consulting and Management Advisory Services within several firm service areas, focusing on agri-business and closely held businesses and their owners. Holbrook & Manter is a professional services firm founded in 1919 and we are unique in that we offer the resources of a large firm without compromising the focused and responsive personal attention that each client deserves. You can reach Brian through www.HolbrookManter.com or at BRavencraft@HolbrookManter.com.

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