Tax Loss Carryforward – Definition

Cite this article as:"Tax Loss Carryforward – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated July 29, 2019, last accessed October 27, 2020,


What is a Tax Loss Carryforward?

A tax-loss carryforward refers to a situation where a firm generates a mechanism that helps them to keep track of its cumulative losses which are subtracted from future years’ profits until the cumulative losses balance comes to zero. In other words, tax loss carryforward moves a tax loss from the previous years’ income to the income from the future financial period.

Another term used to refer to tax loss carryforward is net operating loss (NOL) carryforward.

A Little More on What is a Tax Loss Carryforward

Tax loss carryforward happens when a firm’s expenses surpass that of its revenues hence leading to recurring losses. Tax-loss carryforward is commonly applied in financial modeling and it only applies to individuals and not businesses. This, therefore, means that the NOL is applicable to a business owned by one person (sole proprietor). However, this does not apply to partnership businesses or corporations. Note that tax loss carryforward in the United States is allowed up to a maximum of 20 years.

How Tax Loss Carryforward Works [Example]

Tax-loss carryforward does reduce taxpayers’ future tax payments. This is how it works:

Let us assume that Company ABC’s income is $100,000 and has expenses amounting to $1,300,000. Meaning that it has an operating loss of $300,000 ($1,000,000 – $1,300,000 = -$300,000). Because of the negative taxable income, the company will not pay taxes this particular year. This means that the operating loss will be carried forward into the next business financial year.

If in the following business financial year, company ABC is able to make profits and records a taxable income of say $500,000, then the company will pay a tax rate of 30% (30/100 x $500,000 = $150,000).

However, since Company ABC had carried over its last year’s tax loss, then this particular tax loss is applied to the current year’s tax payments. This leads to the current year’s capital gain. The calculation is as follows:

Company ABC’s loss of -$300,000 carried forward to the current year’s tax payment. This then means that instead of the company owning a tax of $500,000 x 30/100 = $150,000, it will now owe a tax of $ 60,000 ($500,000 – $300,000 x 30/100 = $60,000).

Factoring in Capital Gains and Losses

Loss carryforward is different from tax loss carryforward in that it applies to firms which make a net operating loss on income and not on its capital losses.

It is generally very difficult to realize a capital gain or loss of an asset you own not unless you sell it. Tax liability is generated by capital gain which has been realized and a capital gain, on the other hand, can be used to settle your tax liability for gains.

Basically, tax loss carryforward policy enables investors who are experiencing large losses to offset their losses with future capital gains. This happens until the whole loss is completely offset (comes to zero). This policy is beneficial to investors, especially those who experience huge losses due to market downturns. They can use tax-loss carryforward to reduce gains realized over in the future years.

Who Can Use a Tax Loss Carryforward?

Tax-loss carryforward can be used by businesses. Note that this policy applies only to a business owned by an individual (sole proprietor) and not the general partnership business. Businesses can, therefore, use this where:

  • There is a net operating loss.
  • The capital loss in excess of capital gains.
  • There is an exchange of qualified small business or some given returns from the sale.

It can also be used by individuals who have excess contributions to a states’ 529 plan. State 259 plan refers to savings made for the purpose of meeting education costs. In this case, the excess contribution cannot be deducted but the amount can, however, be moved to the future years up to a limit of 80%.

Benefits of Tax Loss Carryforward

Tax-loss carryforward is valuable to companies in the following ways:

  • Tax-loss carryforward creates for them a tax relief in the future years. This means it reduces companies’ burden of tax payment in the future years.
  • Secondly, tax loss carryforward is in itself a valuable asset. This is why a firm may decide to purchase another company which has tax loss carryforward because of the foreseen value of the company in the future years.

References for “Tax Loss Carryforward


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