How Does Section 1231 Work?

Published on: 08:31AM Jul 20, 2011

We had a reader ask the following question:

"I'm thinking about selling a tract of timber on land that was gifted to me 7 years ago. What can I expect the tax consequences to be? I'm a self-employed farmer."

We have done a couple of posts lately on capital gains treatment of the sale of equipment and other farm business property.

We thought it would be good to review the rules of Section 1231 since they apply to most of these sales.  Section 1231 governs how the sale of business assets is reported and taxed.  It is actually a fairly nice feature in that any Section 1231 gains are usually treated as capital gains and any losses are treated as ordinary and immediately deductible losses.

For example, lets assume a farmer sells a tractor for $25,000.  They paid $20,000 for it ten years ago and have fully depreciated it.  The first $20,000 of cost basis is considered Section 1245 recapture and is always treated as ordinary income.  The excess $5,000 gain is considered Section 1231 and will enjoy capital gains treatment.

Now lets assume the farmer sold the tractor for $15,000 and they had just purchased it for $20,000 and had not taken any depreciation.  In this case, the $5,000 loss is considered a Section 1231 loss and will be ordinary and immediately deductible.  The reason for it being ordinary is that the law assumes the taxpayer had not yet been able to take the full depreciation allowed to get it down to its actual value at the time of sale.

There is one negative to Section 1231 gains and that is the five year look-back recapture.  If, during the last five years, the farmer had net Section 1231 losses reported on their return and they have a Section 1231 gain this year, part or all of this gain would be ordinary. 

For example, assume a farmer had reported a Section 1231 loss in 2008 of $5,000 and had a Section 1231 gain this year of $10,000, then $5,000 would be ordinary and $5,000 would be capital gains.

For our reader, since it appears this tract of timber was gifted as an investment, the gain on the sale should be treated as a capital gain and subject to a maximum federal tax of 15%.