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FAQ: My Stock

FAQ: My stock is trading for pennies: Can I take a worthless stock deduction?

With the U.S. and world financial markets in turmoil, many individual investors may be watching the value of their stock seesaw, or have seen it plummet in value. If the value of your shares are trading at very low prices, or have no value at all, you may be wondering if you can claim a worthless securities deduction for the stock on your 2008 tax return.

Capital or ordinary loss treatment

When stock you own in a corporation becomes totally worthless during the tax year, you may be able to report a loss in the stock equal to its tax basis. Generally, a worthless stock loss is characterized as a capital loss because securities like stock that become worthless are usually treated as capital assets. When a security that is not a capital asset becomes wholly worthless, the loss is deductible as an ordinary loss. For example, if worthless stock is Code Sec. 1244 stock, ordinary loss treatment applies. Worthless stock is treated as if it was sold on the last day of the tax year.

Note. You may only deduct a loss on worthless securities if the loss is incurred in a trade or business, in a transaction entered into for profit, or as the result of a fire, storm, shipwreck, another casualty, or theft. It is generally assumed that an individual acquires securities for profit (although this assumption may be refuted).

Your stock is trading at $1.08 a share: Is it "worthlessness?"

A worthless stock deduction may only be taken when your securities have become totally worthless. You can not take the deduction for stock that has become only partially worthless. The Internal Revenue Code, however, does not define "worthlessness." Nonetheless, in the IRS's eyes, a company's stock is not going to be automatically considered worthless simply because the stock or security has plummeted in value and is now trading at mere dollars and cents.

With the current market turmoil, many stocks have taken big hits and dropped significantly in value, perhaps even trading for a $1.08 per share, but are nonetheless still alive and trading on an exchange. Therefore, you can not take a worthless stock deduction for a mere decline in value of stock caused by a fluctuation in market price or other similar cause, no matter how steep the decline, if your stock has any recognizable value on the date you claim as the date of loss. Even if a company in which you have stock files for bankruptcy, or lawsuits are filed against it, does not automatically qualify the stock or securities as worthlessness.

More hurdles to overcome

Even if you can establish that the stock you own has become totally worthless, the loss must be (1) evidenced by a closed and completed transaction, (2) fixed by identifiable events and (3) actually sustained during the tax year. First, you may only claim the deduction on your return for the tax year in which the stock has become completely worthless, and you must be able to show that the year in which you are claiming the loss is the appropriate tax year.

Generally, a worthless stock loss deduction can be taken in the year in which you abandon the stock. To abandon a security, you must permanently surrender and relinquish all rights in the security and receive no consideration in exchange for the security. But, whether the transaction qualifies as abandonment, and not an actual sale or exchange, is a facts and circumstances test.

If you would like to know whether the stock or other securities you own have become worthless, please contact our office. We can help you navigate these complex rules.

If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.