Tax law generally treats mutual fund shareholders as if they directly owned a proportionate share of the fund’s portfolio of securities and you must report as income any mutual fund distributions, whether or not they are reinvested. 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.
Whether you’re new to mutual funds or a seasoned investor who wants to learn more, these tips will help you avoid the tax bite on mutual fund investments.
First, you need to understand how distributions from mutual funds are taxed. There are two types of taxable distributions: (1) ordinary dividends and (2) capital gain distributions.
Ordinary Dividends. Distributions of ordinary dividends, which come from the interest and dividends earned by securities in the fund’s portfolio, represent the net earnings of the fund. They are paid out periodically to shareholders. Like the return on any other investment, mutual fund dividend payments decline or rise from year to year, depending on the income earned by the fund in accordance with its investment policy. These dividend payments are considered ordinary income and must be reported on your tax return.
Qualified dividends. Qualified dividends are ordinary dividends that are subject to the same the zero or 15 percent maximum tax rate that applies to net capital gain. In 2017, the maximum rate of tax on qualified dividends is 20 percent on any amount that otherwise would be taxed at the 39.6% tax rate, 15 percent on any amount that would otherwise be taxed at rates greater than 15% but less than 39.6%, and zero percent on any amount that would otherwise be taxed at a 10% or 15% rate.
Dividends from foreign corporations are qualified where their stock or ADRs (American depositary receipts) are traded on U.S. exchanges or with IRS approval where U.S. tax treaties cover the dividends. Dividends from mutual funds qualify where a mutual fund is receiving qualified dividends and distributing the required proportions thereof.
Capital gain distributions. When gains from the fund’s sales of securities exceed losses, they are distributed to shareholders. As with ordinary dividends, these capital gain distributions vary in amount from year to year. They are treated as long-term capital gain, regardless of how long you have owned your fund shares.
A mutual fund owner may also have capital gains from selling mutual fund shares.
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 considered ordinary income, but capital gain distributions are long-term regardless of the length of time held before the distribution.
Starting with tax year 2013, long term capital gains are taxed at 20 percent (39.6% tax bracket), 15 percent for the middle tax brackets (25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%), and 0 percent for the 10% and 15% tax brackets.
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, these items combined in your tax reporting, that is, qualified dividends added to long-term capital gains. Capital losses are netted against capital gains before applying the favorable capital gains rates, and losses will not be netted against dividends.
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).
Minimizing Tax Liability on Mutual Fund Activities
Now that you have a better understanding of how mutual funds are taxed, here are seven tips for minimizing the tax on your mutual fund activities.
1. Keep Track of Reinvested Dividends
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.
Tip: If you reinvest, add the amount reinvested to the “cost basis” of your account, i.e., the amount you paid for your shares. The cost basis of your new shares purchased through automatic reinvesting is easily seen from your fund account statements. This information is important later on when you sell shares.
2. Be Aware That Exchanges of Shares Are Taxable Events
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.
Note: Gains on these redemptions and exchanges are taxable whether the fund invests in taxable or tax-exempt securities.
3. Do Not Overlook the Advantages of Tax-Exempt Funds
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 applies to 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 the tax bite by investing in municipal bond funds for example.
Note: Capital gain distributions paid by municipal bond funds (unlike distributions of interest) are not free from federal tax. Most states also tax these capital gain distributions.
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.
4. Keep Records of Your Mutual Fund Transactions
It is crucial 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 recordkeeping so important?
When you sell mutual fund shares, you 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, 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.
Example: In 2012, you purchased 100 shares of Fund JKL at $10 a share for a total purchase price of $1,000. Your cost basis for each share is $10 (what you paid for the shares). Any fees or commissions paid at the time of purchase are included in the basis, so since you paid an up-front commission of two percent, or $20, on the purchase, your cost basis for each share is $10.20 ($1,020 divided by 100). Let’s say you sell your Fund JKL shares this year for $1,500. Assume there are no adjustments to your $ 1,020 basis, such as basis attributable to shares purchased through reinvestment. On this year’s income tax return, you report a capital gain of $480 ($1,500 minus $1,020).
Note: Commissions or brokerage fees are not deducted separately as investment expenses on your tax return since they are taken into account in your cost basis.
One of the advantages of mutual fund investing is that the fund provides you with all of the records that you need to compute gains and losses–a real plus at tax time. Some funds even provide cost basis information or calculate gains and losses for shares sold. That is why it is important to save the statements. However, you are not required to use the fund’s gain or loss computations in your tax reporting.
5. Re-investing Dividends & Capital Gain Distributions when Calculating
Make sure that you do not pay any unnecessary capital gain taxes on the sale of mutual fund shares because you forgot about reinvested amounts. When you reinvest dividends and capital gain distributions to buy more shares, you should add the cost of those shares (that is, the amount invested) to the cost basis of the shares in that account because you have already paid tax on those shares.
Failure to include reinvested dividends and capital gain distributions in your cost basis is a costly mistake.
6. Don’t Forget State Taxation
Many states treat mutual fund distributions the same way the federal government does. There are, however, some differences. For example:
- If your mutual fund invests in U.S. government obligations, states generally exempt, from state taxation, dividends attributable to federal obligation interest.
- Most states do not tax income from their own obligations, whether held directly or through mutual funds. On the other hand, the majority of states do tax income from the obligations of other states. Thus, in most states, you will not pay state tax to the extent you receive, through the fund, income from obligations issued by your state or its municipalities.
- Most states don’t grant reduced rates for capital gains or dividends.
7. Don’t Overlook Possible Tax Credits for Foreign Income
If your fund invests in foreign stocks or bonds, part of the income it distributes may have been subject to foreign tax withholding. If so, you may be entitled to a tax deduction or credit for your pro-rata share of taxes paid. Your fund will provide you with the necessary information.
Tip: Because a tax credit provides a dollar-for-dollar offset against your tax bill, while a deduction reduces the amount of income on which you must pay tax, it is generally advantageous to claim the foreign tax credit. If the foreign tax doesn’t exceed $300 ($600 on a joint return), then you may not need to file IRS form 1116 to claim the credit.