Section 481(a) Positive Adjustment Spread Period Changes

May 26, 2016 | By: Robert A. Green, CPA

According to tax research service Thomson Reuters CheckPoint, “Under the new procedures for filing a Form 3115 for tax year 2015 and forward, the four-year spread period generally applicable to a positive Section 481(a) adjustment has been modified as De minimis § 481(a) adjustment amount increased. Under a de minimis provision, positive adjustment may be spread over one year (versus four years) at the taxpayer’s election. The new procedures increases the de minimis threshold to $50,000 from $25,000. The election is made on the new Form 3115 (Rev 12-2015), Part IV, Line 27.”

This means that a trader with a Section 481(a) income adjustment up to $50,000 can elect to report the entire amount of income in the current tax year rather than spread the income over four years. The IRS is probably hoping fewer taxpayers defer income and some may forget to report that income in subsequent tax years. 

According to Green’s 2016 Trader Tax Guide, “Form 3115 (Change in Accounting Method) includes a section for reporting a Section 481(a) adjustment, which is required when a change of accounting is made. The rest of the multi-page Form 3115 relates to tax law and code sections, etc. In the case of changing to Section 475 MTM, a trader’s section 481(a) adjustment is his unrealized business trading gain or loss as of Dec. 31 of the prior tax year. A section 481(a) loss is deductible in full; whereas a gain of more than $25,000 must be prorated over four tax years.” Effective for 2015 tax filings, the $25,000 is changed to $50,000. 

For example: If a trader’s 2015 Section 481(a) adjustment is $40,000, on their 2015 Form 3115 they may elect to report the full income. Conversely, if the income adjustment is $60,000 they would have to spread it over four years reporting $15,000 each year.

Section 475 and Section 481(a) adjustments
When a trader with trader tax status (TTS) elects Section 475 mark-to-market (MTM) ordinary gain or loss treatment, the IRS requires a Section 481(a) adjustment on income tax Form 3115 (Application for Change in Accounting Method) and Form 4797 (Sales of Business Property).

The trader is changing accounting method from the cash method on Dec. 31 to the Section 475 MTM method on Jan. 1. If the trader has open TTS securities positions on Dec. 31 the Section 481(a) adjustment is the unrealized gain or loss on TTS positions on Dec. 31. Gain is a positive adjustment and loss is a negative adjustment. Segregated investment positions in securities are not included in the Section 481(a) adjustment. Section 1256 contracts like futures are already subject to MTM so they also are not included in the 481(a) adjustment.