IRS Glossary

Accelerated depreciation
A depreciation method that allows larger deductions in the early years of an asset’s “life” and smaller deductions at the end of the period. (See “Straight-line depreciation.”)

Accrual method (or accrual basis)
One of two main accounting methods for determining when a transaction has tax significance. The accrual method says that a transaction is taxed when an obligation to pay or a right to receive payment is created (for example, at the time products are delivered, services rendered, billings sent, etc.). This method is used by all but the smallest businesses. (See “Cash method (or cash basis).”)

Adjustable Rate Mortgage or ARM
A mortgage with an interest rate that may increase or decrease during the term of the loan, according to determined margins with limits on increases or decreases (called “caps”).

Adjusted basis
The cost of property (or a substitute figure-see “Basis”) with adjustments made to account for depreciation (in the case of business property), improvements (in the case of real estate), withdrawals or reinvestment (in the case of securities, funds, accounts, insurance or annuities), etc. Adjusted basis is part of the computation for determining gain or loss on a sale or exchange and for depreciation.

Adjusted gross income
The amount of income considered actually “available” to be taxed. Adjusted gross income is gross income reduced principally by business expenses incurred to earn the income and other specified reductions (such as alimony).

Alternative minimum tax
An alternative tax system that says: your tax shall not go below this level. The alternative minimum tax works by negating (or minimizing) the effects of tax preferences or loopholes.

The write-off of an amount spent for certain capital assets, similar to depreciation. This tax meaning is different from the common meaning of the term that describes, for example, payment schedules of loans.

Applicable Federal Rates (AFRs)
Minimum interest rates that must be charged on various transactions that involve payments over a number of years. If the parties to a transaction do not adhere to these rates, the IRS will impute the interest. (See “Imputed interest.”)

At-risk rules
Rules that limit an investor’s deductible losses from an investment to the amount invested. Complications arise when investors finance their investment through loans that they are not personally on the hook for (nonrecourse financing).
Without these rules, investors could raise their deduction limit considerably without being at-risk for the actual loss.

The starting point for computing gain or loss on a sale or exchange of property or for depreciation. (See “Adjusted basis.”) For property that is purchased, basis is its cost. The basis of inherited property is its value at the date of death (or alternative valuation date). The basis of property received as a gift or a nontaxable transaction is based on the adjusted basis of the transferor (with some adjustments). Special rules govern property transferred between corporations and their shareholders, partners and their partnership, etc.

Capital expenditures
Amounts spent to acquire or improve assets with useful lives of more than one year. These expenditures may not be deducted, but are added to the basis of the property (See “Adjusted basis.”) and, for business property, may be converted into deductions through depreciation or amortization.

Capital gain or loss
Gain or loss from the sale or exchange of investment property, personal property (such as a home) or other “capital asset,” which is often entitled to preferential tax treatment.

Carrybacks and carryforwards
Deductions that may be transferred to a year other than the current year because they exceeded certain limits. These deductions are typically carried back to earlier years first and, if they exceed the limits for those years, are then carried forward to later years until the deduction is used up. Charitable contributions and net operating losses are examples of deductions that may be carried back or forward.

Cash method (or cash basis)
One of two main accounting methods for determining when a transaction has tax significance. The cash method says that a transaction is taxed when payment is made. This method is used by most individuals. (See “Accrual method (or accrual basis).”)

Community property
A system governing spousal ownership of property and income that is the law in certain western and southern states and Wisconsin. The differences between community property and “common law” can change how federal tax law applies to spouses.
For example: married taxpayers filing separately in a common law state do not have to report income earned by the other spouse. They do have to report income earned in a community property state.

Deferred compensation
An arrangement that allows an employee to receive part of a year’s pay in a later year and not be taxed in the year the money was earned.

A system similar to depreciation that allows the owner of natural resources (for example: a coal mine or an oil well) to deduct a portion of the cost of the asset during each year of its presumed productive life.

A system that allows a business or individual to deduct a portion of the cost of an asset (“recover its cost”) during each year of its predetermined “life” (or “recovery period”).

Earned income
Income earned by working for it. Interest, dividends and other kinds of profits are examples of unearned income.

Earned income credit
A tax credit available to individuals with low earned income. An individual is entitled to the full amount of this credit even if it exceeds the amount of tax otherwise due.

Employee stock ownership plan (ESOP)
A type of profit-sharing plan in which benefits come in the form of stock in the employer.

Estimated tax
Quarterly down payments on a year’s taxes that are required (on April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15) if the total year’s taxes will exceed $1,000 and the amount is not covered by withholding.

Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA)
Social security taxes (for both old-age, survivors and disability insurance-OASDI-and Medicare).

Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA)
Unemployment taxes.

File a return
To file a return is to send in your completed tax forms, or return (“return” is the official term-use it, you’ll sound smarter). All your tax information appears on the return, including income and taxliability.

Filing status
One of four tax ranks determined by your marital status, your dependents and the way you file your tax return: (1) single, (2) married filing jointly, (3) married filing separately and (4) head of household. Filing status determines your tax rates and your eligibility for various tax benefits (for example: alimony deduction, IRA deduction, standard deduction, etc.).

Form 1040EZ
This form is great if you’re single or married, don’t have any dependents and aren’t rolling in dough.
If your income is $50,000 or less and your interest income is $400 or less — use this easy (get it, EZ) IRS form to file your return.

Generation-skipping transfer tax
An extra tax on gifts or on-death transfers of money or property that would otherwise escape the once-per-generation transfer taxes that apply to gifts and estates. For example: a gift from a grandfather to a granddaughter skips a generation and might be subject to this tax.

Golden parachutes
Bonuses payable to key executives in the event control of their corporation changes, as in the case of a takeover.
“Excess” golden parachute payments are subject to tax penalties.

Gross income
All income that might be subject to tax. Most “realized” increases in wealth are considered income.
The main exceptions for individuals are gifts, inheritances, increases in value of property prior to sale, loan repayments and some personal injury awards. For businesses, investments in their capital are not considered income.

Head of household
A filing status available to qualifying single parents (or others supporting certain dependents) that allows lower taxes than the normal rates for singles.

Imputed interest.
A portion of a future payment that is treated as interest if parties to the transaction do not provide a stated amount of interest at a rate acceptable to the IRS. (See “Applicable Federal Rates (AFRs).”) This prevents improper use of certain tax advantages (capital gains rates or tax deferral). For example: if a business sells an asset on the installment basis, part of all future payments is treated as interest whether the transaction states it or not.

Income taxes
These are taxes on income, both earned income (salaries, wages, tips, commissions) and unearned income (interest from savings accounts, dividends if you hold stock). Individuals and businesses are subject to income taxes.

Incentive stock option
A stock option that may be granted to an employee under tax-favored terms.

Innocent Spouse Rule
An exception to the general rule that both signers of a joint return are individually liable for the entire tax due plus penalties and interest. Generally, when a taxpayer signs a joint return he or her is liable for the entire tax due, even if taxpayer later divorces his or her spouse, did not earn the income that generated the tax, and did not know about the omission of income or claiming of erroneous deductions. Under the innocent spouse rule, a spouse may claim to not be jointly liable if he or she did not know about the errors and did not benefit from them.

Itemized deductions.
Personal deductions that may be taken if they total more than the standard deduction. (See “Standard deduction.”) The following deductions are then itemized or listed on Schedule A of Form 1040: medical expenses, charitable contributions, state and local taxes, home mortgage interest, real estate taxes, casualty losses, unreimbursed employee expenses, investment expenses and others.

Investment credit.
A credit against tax available for investment in a limited range of business property. The general investment credit was repealed in 1986, but this type of credit has been enacted and repealed repeatedly throughout history.

Involuntary conversion
The conversion of property into money under circumstances beyond the control of the owner. For example: (1) property that is destroyed and “converted” into an insurance settlement or (2) property that is seized by the government and “converted” into a condemnation award. Owners may avoid tax on any gain that may result (if the insurance settlement or condemnation award exceeds the adjusted basis of the property) by reinvesting in similar property within certain time limits.

Joint return
An optional filing status available to married taxpayers that offers generally (but not always) lower taxes than “married filing separately.”

Listed property
Property listed in the tax code or by the IRS that must comply with special rules before depreciation may be claimed.
Cars and personal computers are examples of listed property. The special rules are designed to prevent deductions where the property is used for personal rather than business purposes.

Married Filing Separately
A filing status a taxpayer can use if married as of the end of the tax year. Taxpayer and his/her spouse each file a separate income tax return with their own income and deductions. (See also innocent spouse rule.)

Net operating loss
The excess of business expenses over income.
A business may apply a net operating loss to get a refund of past taxes (or a reduction of future taxes) by carrying it back to profitable years as an additional deduction (or by carrying it forward as a deduction to future years).

Qualified plan
A retirement or profit-sharing plan that meets requirements about who must be covered, the amount of benefits that are paid, information that must be given to plan participants, etc.
Qualified plans are entitled to tax benefits unavailable to nonqualified plans.

Qualifying Widow(er)
A filing status one may be able to use for two years after the year the other spouse died. This status allows using the same rates as if filing jointly. To qualify, one must:

Not have remarried before the end of the tax year for which you are filing the return.
Have had the right to file a joint return in the year of your spouse’s death.
Have a dependent child living in the home and have paid more than half the home maintaining cost for that dependent.
Taxpayer may file a joint return with his or her deceased spouse for the year of the other spouse’s death. For two years thereafter, if all of these conditions are met, it is possible to file using the Qualifying Widow(er) status.

Real estate investment trust (REIT).
A kind of “mutual fund” that invests in real estate rather than stocks and bonds.

Real estate mortgage investment conduit (REMIC)
A kind of “mutual fund” that invests in real estate mortgages rather than stocks and bonds.

The undoing of a tax benefit if certain requirements are not met in future years. For example: (1) The low-income housing credit may be recaptured or added back to tax if the credit property ceases to be used as low-income housing for a minimum number of years. (2) The alimony deduction may be retroactively lost or recaptured if payments do not continue at the requisite level for a minimum number of years.

The tax-free termination of one investment and reinvestment of the proceeds.
For example: An individual may roll over a lump-sum distribution from an employer’s retirement plan into an IRA.

S corporation
A corporation with no more than 35 shareholders that is not taxed, but treated similarly to a partnership, if other requirements are met.

Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE plans)
A simplified retirement arrangement for small businesses that comes in two varieties: one similar to a 401(k) plan and one that funds IRAs for employees.

Standard deduction
A deduction allowed individuals instead of listing or itemizing deductible personal expenses. (See “Itemized deductions.”) The amount depends on the individual’s filing status. Additional amounts are available for taxpayers who are blind or are age 65 or over. Individuals may deduct either their standard deduction or the total of their itemized deductions, whichever is greater.

Swaps, tax-free
(1) Exchanges of like-kind property that result in no capital gains tax (commonly used for real estate). (2) Sales and repurchases of stock (or other securities) designed to realize a tax loss without discontinuing the investment. Transactions must comply with the wash sale rules to be effective. (See “Wash sales.”)

Taxable income.
What is left after all deductions are taken. This is the amount upon which tax is computed.

Taxpayer identification number (TIN)
In the case of an individual, the Social Security number. In the case of a business (even an individual in business), the employer identification number.

Top-heavy plan
An employee retirement or profit-sharing plan that disproportionately benefits top executives.

Withholding allowances
Adjustments made to assure correct withholding on wages for individuals who may have unusually large deductions or who may be subject to other special circumstances.