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How are distributions from mutual funds taxed? What happens when they are reinvested? How are capital gains on sales of mutual funds determined? This Financial Guide provides you with tips on reducing the tax on mutual fund activities.
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A basic knowledge of mutual fund taxation and careful record-keeping can help you cut the tax bite on your mutual fund investments.
You must generally report as income any mutual fund distributions, whether or not they are reinvested. The tax law generally treats mutual fund shareholders as if they directly owned a proportionate share of the fund's portfolio of securities. Thus, all dividends and interest from securities in the portfolio, as well as any capital gains from the sales of securities, are taxed to the shareholders.
There are two types of taxable distributions: (1) ordinary dividends and (2) capital gain distributions:
Capital gains rates. The beneficial long-term capital gains rates on sales of mutual fund shares apply only to profits on shares held more than a year before sale. (Profit on shares held a year or less before sale is ordinary income, but capital gain distributions are long-term regardless of the length of time held before the distribution.)
In 2018, tax rates on capital gains and dividends remain the same as 2017 rates (0%, 15%, and a top rate of 20%); however threshold amounts are different in that they don't correspond to new tax bracket structure as they did in the past. For most taxpayers in the lower tax brackets (10 and 12 percent), the rate remains 0 percent; however, the threshold amounts are $38,600 for individuals (vs. $38,700 for the 12% bracket) and $77,200 (vs. $77,400 for the 12% bracket) for married filing jointly. For taxpayers in the four middle tax brackets, 22, 24, 32, and 35 percent (up to $425,800 single filers and $479,000 filing jointly), the rate is 15 percent. For an individual taxpayer in the highest tax bracket, 37 percent, and those in the 35% bracket whose income is at or above $425,800 ($479,000 married filing jointly), the rate for both capital gains and dividends is capped at 20 percent.
Note: For tax years 2013-2017 dividend income that fell in the highest tax bracket (39.6%) was taxed at 20 percent. For the middle tax brackets (25-35%) the dividend tax rate was 15 percent, and for the two lower ordinary income tax brackets of 10% and 15%, the dividend tax rate was zero.
Note: The "qualified five-year capital gains" on stock, in which special rules apply to the gains on the sale of capital assets held for more than five years, expired at the end of 2012 and was permanently repealed by the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) of 2012.
At tax time, your mutual fund will send you a Form 1099-DIV, which tells you what earnings to report on your income tax return, and how much of it is qualified dividends. Because tax rates on qualified dividends are the same as for capital gains distributions and long-term gains on sales, Congress wants these items combined in your tax reporting, that is, qualified dividends added to long-term capital gains. Also, capital losses are netted against capital gains before applying the favorable capital gains rates. Losses will not be netted against dividends.
Undistributed capital gains. Mutual funds sometimes retain a part of their capital gain and pay tax on them. You must report your share of such gains and can claim a credit for the tax paid. The mutual fund will report these amounts to you on Form 2439. You increase your shares' "cost basis" (more about this in Tip No. 5, below) by 65 percent of the gain, representing the gain reduced by the credit.
Medicare Tax. Starting with tax year 2013, an additional Medicare tax of 3.8 percent is applied to net investment income for individuals with modified adjusted gross income above $200,000 (single filers) and $250,000 (joint filers).
Now that you have a better understanding of how mutual funds are taxed, here are 13 tips for minimizing the tax on your mutual fund activities.
Most funds offer you the option of having dividend and capital gain distributions automatically reinvested in the fund--a good way to buy new shares and expand your holdings. While most shareholders take advantage of this service, it is not a way to avoid being taxed. Reinvested ordinary dividends are still taxed (at long-term capital gains rates if qualified), just as if you had received them in cash. Similarly, reinvested capital gain distributions are taxed as long-term capital gain.
The "exchange privilege," or the ability to exchange shares of one fund for shares of another, is a popular feature of many mutual fund "families," i.e., fund organizations that offer a variety of funds. For tax purposes, exchanges are treated as if you had sold your shares in one fund and used the cash to purchase shares in another fund. In other words, you must report any capital gain from the exchange on your return. The same tax rules used for calculating gains and losses when you redeem shares apply when you exchange them.
Tax law requires that mutual funds distribute at least 98 percent of their ordinary and capital gain income annually. Thus, many funds make disproportionately large distributions in December. The date on which a fund's shareholders become entitled to future payment of a distribution is referred to as the ex-dividend date. On that date, the fund's net asset value (NAV) is reduced on a per share basis by the exact amount of the distribution. Buying mutual fund shares just before this date can trigger an unexpected tax.
If you reinvest the $1,000, the distribution has the appearance of a wash in your account since the value of your fund investment remains $10,000. The $1,000 reinvestment results in the acquisition of 111.1 new shares with a $9 NAV and increases the cost basis of your total investment to $11,000. If you were to redeem your shares for $10,000 (their current value), you would realize a $1,000 capital loss.
In spite of these tax consequences, in some instances it may be a good idea to buy shares right before the fund goes ex-dividend. For instance, the distribution could be relatively small, with only minor tax consequences. Or the market could be moving up, with share prices expected to be higher after the ex-dividend date.
If you are in the higher tax brackets and are seeing your investment profits taxed away, then there is a good alternative to consider: tax-exempt mutual funds. Distributions from such funds that are attributable to interest from state and municipal bonds are exempt from federal income tax (although they may be subject to state tax).
The same is true of distributions from tax-exempt money market funds. These funds also invest in municipal bonds, but only in those that are short-term or close to maturity, the aim being to reduce the fluctuation in NAV that occurs in long-term funds.
Many taxpayers can ease their tax bite by investing in municipal bond funds. The catch with municipal bond funds is that they offer lower yields than comparable taxable bonds. For example, if a U.S. Treasury bond yields 2.8 percent, then a quality municipal bond of the same maturity might yield 2.45 percent. If an investor is in a higher tax bracket, the tax advantage makes it worthwhile to invest in the lower-yielding tax-exempt fund. Whether the tax advantage actually benefits a particular investor depends on that investor's tax bracket.
To figure out how much you would have to earn on a taxable investment to equal the yield on a tax-exempt investment, use this formula: Tax-exempt yield divided by (1 minus your tax bracket) = equivalent yield of a taxable investment.
Although income from tax-exempt funds is federally tax-exempt, you must still report on your tax return the amount of tax-exempt income you received during the year. This is an information-reporting requirement only and does not convert tax-exempt earnings into taxable income.
Your tax-exempt mutual fund will send you a statement summarizing its distributions for the past year and explaining how to handle tax-exempt dividends on a state-by-state basis.
It is very important to keep the statements from each mutual fund you own, especially the year-end statement.
By law, mutual funds must send you a record of every transaction in your account, including reinvestments and exchanges of shares. The statement shows the date, amount, and number of full and fractional shares bought or sold. These transactions are also contained in the year-end statement.
In addition, you will receive a year-end Form 1099-B, which reports the sale of fund shares, for any non-IRA mutual fund account in which you sold shares during the year.
Why is record keeping so important? When you sell mutual fund shares, you will realize a capital gain or loss in the year the shares are sold. You must pay tax on any capital gain arising from the sale, just as you would from a sale of individual securities. (Losses may be used to offset other gains in the current year and deducted up to an additional $3,000 of ordinary income. Remaining loss may be carried for comparable treatment in later years.)
The amount of the gain or loss is determined by the difference between the cost basis of the shares (generally the original purchase price) and the sale price. Thus, in order to figure the gain or loss on a sale of shares, it is essential to know the cost basis. If you have kept your statements, you will be able to figure this out.