Be Aware Of Your Tax Surroundings

Published Friday, November 20, 2015 at: 7:00 AM EST

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When you trade stocks, bonds, or other capital assets, it makes sense to focus on the "bottom line"—whether you'll make or lose money, and how big your profit or loss may be. But what you're doing has tax consequences, too, and you need to be aware of what they are. And sometimes the likely tax ramifications of a transaction could influence whether you go ahead with it.

For simplicity, this discussion of tax-aware investing will look only at federal taxes, although there may be similar results on the state level.

Start with the basic premise that you can "net" any capital gains and losses you realize during the year, with losses subtracted from your gains. Any excess loss can be used to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income, which is taxed at rates as high as 39.6%. If you have additional losses, you can carry them over to the following year.

Long-term capital gains are taxed at a maximum rate of 15%, or a top rate of 20% if you're in the top ordinary income tax bracket of 39.6%. To the extent that any of your long-term capital gains are taxed in the two lowest income tax brackets of 10% and 15%, the tax rate is 0%.

That can be especially beneficial to a tax-savvy investor. Suppose you realize a net long-term capital gain of $25,000 from a securities transaction this year. If you have $15,000 of room to spare before you cross into the 25% tax bracket for ordinary income, there will be zero tax on the first $15,000 of gain. The remaining $10,000 then will be taxed at the 15% rate for long-term capital gains. In other words, you pocket $25,000 of gain and pay a total capital gains tax of only $1,500!

Short-term capital gains, meanwhile, are taxed at ordinary income rates. This could have an impact on how long you hold securities, perhaps convincing you to delay taking a profit until it qualifies as a long-term gain. Upper-income investors also may have to pay a 3.8% surtax on some investment income.

"Qualified" dividends from U.S. companies benefit from the same preferential tax rates as long-term capital gains. To qualify, you must have held the stock for more than 60 days during the 121-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date (that is, the first date following the declaration of a dividend on which the buyer of a stock is not entitled to receive the next dividend payment).

Other types of investments, too, may be eligible for favorable tax treatment. For instance, while payouts from employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs are taxed as ordinary income, qualified distributions from Roth IRAs are 100% tax-free after five years. The tax law includes other statutory benefits that may apply to real estate, annuities, master limited partnerships, and life insurance.

Tax aspects are a critical part of your investment decisions. If you can learn how they work and what the potential tax impact is, you may be able to keep more of your investing profits. We can help you determine how to proceed.

This article was written by a professional financial journalist for Advisor Products and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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