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10 things to know about how investments are taxed

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Among the investment products advisors recommend to their clients, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds top the list. ETFs in particular are a popular product for thier tax-favored status — but how precisely are they taxed? What are the exceptions to the general rules? And what about dividends from mutual funds or real estate investment trusts? If you’re looking for detailed answers to these and other questions, read on. 

1. What are the tax advantages of owning exchange-traded funds (ETFs)?

One of the advantages of owning ETFs is their tax efficiency. 

ETFs enjoy a more favorable tax treatment than mutual funds due to their unique structure. Mutual funds create and redeem shares with in-kind transactions that are not considered sales. As a result, they do not create taxable events. However, when you sell an ETF, the trade triggers a taxable event. Whether it is a long-term or short-term capital gain or loss depends on how long the ETF was held. In the United States, to receive long-term capital gains treatment you must hold an ETF for more than one year. If you hold the security for one year or less, then it will receive short-term capital gains treatment.

Planning Point: Long-term capital gains are normally taxed at a favorable rate of 20 percent, 15 percent or 0 percent, depending on the taxpayer’s income tax bracket. These favorable rates were made permanent for tax years beginning after 2012. 

As with stocks, you are subject to the wash-sale rules if you sell an ETF for a loss and then buy it back within 30 days. A wash sale occurs when you sell or trade a security at a loss and within 30 days after the sale you:

•Buy a substantially identical ETF,

•Acquire a substantially identical ETF in a fully taxable trade, or

•Acquire a contract or option to buy a substantially identical ETF

Planning Point: If your loss was disallowed because of the wash-sale rules, you should add the disallowed loss to the cost of the new ETF. This increases your basis in the new ETF. This adjustment postpones the loss deduction until the disposition of the new ETF. Your holding period for the new ETF begins on the same day as the holding period of the ETF that was sold.

Many ETFs generate dividends from the stocks they hold. Ordinary (taxable) dividends are the most common type of distribution from a corporation. According to the IRS, you can assume that any dividend you receive on common or preferred stock is an ordinary dividend unless the paying corporation tells you otherwise. These dividends are taxed when paid by the ETF as ordinary income.

Qualified dividends are subject to the same maximum tax rate that applies to net capital gains. In order to qualify: 

1.An American company or a qualifying foreign company must have paid the dividend.

2.The dividends must not be listed with the IRS as dividends that do not qualify.

3. The required dividend holding period must be met.

The ETF provider should tell you whether the dividends that have been paid are ordinary or qualified.

2. How are ETFs taxed?

ETF shares represent undivided interests in the assets held by the fund. ETFs are “organized either as open-end investment companies or unit investment trusts.” ETFs organized as unit investment trusts generally qualify for tax treatment as regulated investment companies for tax purposes. 

Exchange-Traded Funds Invested in Metals. In a memorandum prepared by the Office of Chief Counsel of the IRS, which was made public only as the result of a court order, the IRS advised that the sale of an interest in an ETF that directly invests in metal (“physically-backed metal ETF”) is treated as the sale of a “collectible,” such that any gain from the sale of the interest is subject to the maximum capital gain rate of 28 percent (i.e., instead of the 20%/15%/0% capital gain rate). The Service reasoned that in the case of a physically-backed metal ETF that is treated as a trust, the investor is treated as owning an undivided beneficial interest in the collectible held by the trust. Accordingly, if the investor sells an interest in the ETF or the trust sells a portion of the collectible, the investor is treated as having sold all or a portion of his or her share of the collectible held by the trust, and any gain from the sale of the trust interest or sale of the collectible by the trust is treated as collectible gain and, therefore, is subject to the maximum capital gain rate of 28 percent. However, if a physically-backed metal ETF is not structured as a trust, or if the ETF does not directly invest in the metal, then the above rule does not apply. The Service cautions that the structure of each physically backed metal ETF should be considered to determine the tax consequences of an investment in that ETF.

See also: More investors using ETFs as long-term strategy

3. What are the exceptions to the general rules for how ETFs are taxed?

As in just about everything, there are exceptions to the general tax rules for ETFs. A good way to think about these exceptions is to know the tax rules for the sector. ETFs that fit into certain sectors follow the tax rules for the sector rather than the general tax rules. Currencies, futures, and metals are the sectors that receive special tax treatment. 


Most currency ETFs are in the form of grantor trusts. This means the profit from the trust creates a tax liability for the ETF shareholder, which is taxed as ordinary income. They do not receive any special treatment, such as long-term capital gains, even if you hold the ETF for several years. Since currency ETFs trade in currency pairs, the taxing authorities assume that these trades take place over short periods.

Futures ETFs

These funds trade commodities, stocks, Treasury bonds, and currencies. For example, PowerShares DB Agriculture (AMEX:DBA) invests in futures contracts of the agricultural commodities — corn, wheat, soybeans, and sugar — not the underlying commodities. Gains and losses on the futures within the ETF are treated for tax purposes as 60 percent long-term and 40 percent short-term regardless of how long the contracts were held by the ETF. Further, ETFs that trade futures follow mark-to-market rules at year-end. This means that unrealized gains at the end of the year are taxed as though they were sold. 

Metals ETFs

If you trade or invest in gold, silver, or platinum bullion, the IRS considers it a “collectible” for tax purposes. The same applies to ETFs that trade or hold gold, silver, or platinum. As a collectible, if your gain is short-term, then it is taxed as ordinary income. If your gain is earned for more than one year, then you are taxed at either of three capital gains rates, depending on your tax bracket. This means that you cannot take advantage of normal capital gains tax rates on investments in ETFs that invest in gold, silver, or platinum. Your ETF provider will inform you what is considered short-term and what is considered long-term gains or losses.

4. How are dividends received from a mutual fund taxed?

Mutual funds may pay three kinds of dividends to their shareholders; generally, taxable dividends will be reported to the shareholder on Form 1099-DIV.

(1) Ordinary income dividends. Ordinary income dividends are derived from the mutual fund’s net investment income (i.e., interest and dividends on its holdings) and short-term capital gains. A shareholder generally includes ordinary income dividends in income for the year in which they are received by reporting them as “dividend income” on his or her income tax return.

However, under JGTRRA 2003, qualified dividend income is treated in some respects like net capital gain and is, therefore, eligible for what are now the 20%/15%/0% tax rates instead of the higher ordinary income tax rates. (ATRA 2012 made the special treatment of “qualified dividends” permanent — or as permanent as anything in the IRC.) As a result of JGTRRA 2003, mutual funds are required to report on Form 1099-DIV the nature of the ordinary dividend being distributed to shareholders — that is, whether the ordinary dividend is a “qualified dividend” subject to the 20%/15%/0% rates (Box 1b), or a nonqualifying dividend subject to ordinary income tax rates (Box 1a). Unless otherwise designated by the mutual fund, all distributions to shareholders are to be treated as ordinary income dividends.

Ordinary income dividends paid by mutual funds are eligible for the 20%/15%/0% rate if the income being passed from the fund to shareholders is qualified dividend income in the hands of the fund andnot short-term capital gains or interest from bonds (both of which continue to be taxed at ordinary income tax rates). 

The Service has stated that mutual funds that pass through dividend income to their shareholders must meet the holding period test for the dividend-paying stocks that they pay out to be reported as qualified dividends on Form 1099-DIV. Investors must also meet the holding period test relative to the shares they hold directly, from which they received the qualified dividends that were reported to them. In summary, the holding period test must be satisfied by both the mutual fund and the shareholder in order for the dividend to be eligible for the 20%/15%/0% rate.

The Service has ruled that in making dividend designations (under IRC Sections 852(b)(3)(C), 852(b)(5)(A), 854(b)(1), 854(b)(2), 871(k)(1)(C), and 871(k)(2)(C)), a mutual fund may designate the maximum amount permitted under each provision even if the aggregate of all the amounts so designated exceeds the total amount of the mutual fund’s dividend distributions. (IRC Section 852(b)(3) provides rules for determining the amount distributed by a mutual fund to its shareholders that may be treated by the shareholders as a capital gain dividend (see below). IRC Section 854 provides rules for determining the amount distributed that may be treated as qualified dividend income. IRC Section 871(k) provides rules for determining the amount distributed that may be treated as interest-related dividends or short-term capital gain dividends.) The Service further ruled that individual U.S. shareholders may apply designations to the dividends they receive from the mutual fund that differ from designations applied by shareholders who are nonresident alien individuals. 

Varying distributions paid by a mutual fund to shareholders in different “qualified groups” (shares in the same portfolio of securities that have different arrangements for shareholder services or the distribution of shares, or based on investment performance) constitute deductible dividends for the mutual fund.

An award of points to a shareholder under an airline awards program, in which one point is awarded for each new dollar invested in the mutual fund, will not result in the payment of a preferential dividend by the fund; instead, the investor will be informed of the fair market value of the points and informed that the basis in the shares giving rise to the award of points should be adjusted downward by the fair market value of the points as a purchase price adjustment. 

Certain pass-through entities are required to report as part of a shareholder’s ordinary income dividends the shareholder’s allocated share of certain investment expenses (i.e., those which would be classified as miscellaneous itemized deductions if incurred by an individual), in addition to ordinary income dividends actually paid to a shareholder. The shareholder then must include such additional amount in income and treat the amount as a miscellaneous itemized deduction (subject to the 2 percent floor) in the same year. However, publicly offered regulated investment companies (generally mutual funds) are excluded from the application of this provision. 

(2) Exempt interest dividends. Some mutual funds invest in securities that pay interest exempt from federal income tax. This interest may be passed through to the fund’s shareholders, retaining its tax-exempt status, provided at least 50 percent of the fund’s assets consist of such tax-exempt securities. Thus, a shareholder does not include exempt-interest dividends in income. The mutual fund will send written notice to its shareholders advising them of the amount of any exempt-interest dividends. Any person required to file a tax return must report the amount of tax-exempt interest received or accrued during the taxable year on that return. Under JGTRRA 2003, exempt-interest dividends do not count as qualified dividend income for purposes of the 20%/15%/0% tax rates.

(3) Capital gain dividends. Capital gain dividends result from sales by the mutual fund of stocks and securities that result in long-term capital gains. The mutual fund will notify shareholders in writing of the amount of any capital gain dividend. The shareholder reports a capital gain dividend on the federal income tax return for the year in which it is received as a long-term capital gain regardless of how long the shareholder has owned shares in the mutual fund. As such, a capital gain dividend may be partially or totally offset by the shareholder’s capital losses (if any); if not totally offset by capital losses, the excess (i.e., net capital gain) will be taxed at the applicable capital gains rate. For additional guidance on designations of capital gain dividends, see Rev. Rul. 2005-31, above.

The Service issued guidance clarifying that capital gain dividends received from a mutual fund in 2004 would be taxed at the lower capital gain rates enacted under JGTRRA 2003. Concern had been expressed that the prior rules for dividend designation and the transition to the new, lower capital gain rates might cause some 2004 capital gain dividends to be taxed to mutual fund shareholders at the old, higher rates. However, the guidance clarified that this would not occur.

Generally, a shareholder may elect to treat all or a portion of net capital gain (i.e., the excess of long-term capital gain over short-term capital loss) as investment income. If the election is made, the amount of any gain so included is taxed as investment income. This election may be advantageous if the shareholder’s investment interest expense would otherwise exceed his investment income for the year. If the shareholder makes the election, the shareholder must also reduce net capital gain by the amount treated as investment income.  

Detailed instructions for reporting mutual fund distributions on Form 1040 or Form 1040A are set forth in Publication 564, Mutual Fund Distributions (2011).

5. How is a mutual fund shareholder taxed on undistributed capital gains?

A mutual fund may declare but retain a capital gain dividend. If it does so, the mutual fund will notify its shareholders of the amount of the undistributed dividend and will pay federal income tax on the undistributed amount at the corporate alternative capital gain rate, which is currently 35 percent.

See also: Mutual funds among top products used by advisors

A shareholder who is notified of an undistributed capital gain dividend includes the amount of the dividend in income in the same manner as a normal capital gain dividend. However, the shareholder is also credited with having paid his or her share of the tax paid by the mutual fund on the undistributed amount; thus, on the shareholder’s income tax return, the shareholder is treated as though he or she has made an advance payment of tax equal to 35 percent of the amount of the undistributed dividend reported. The shareholder reports the undistributed dividend and is credited with the payment of tax for the calendar year that includes the last day of the mutual fund’s taxable year during which the dividend was declared. 

Generally, a shareholder who reports an undistributed capital gain dividend increases the tax basis in his or her shares of the mutual fund by the difference between the amount of the undistributed capital gain dividend and the tax deemed paid by the shareholder in respect of such shares.

6. How are dividends that are automatically reinvested taxed?

Some mutual funds automatically reinvest shareholder dividends under a plan that credits the shareholder with additional shares, but gives him the right to withdraw the dividends at any time. Even though the dividend is not distributed directly to the shareholder, it is credited to his account. Such dividends are considered “constructively” received by the shareholder and are included in his income for the year in which they are credited to his account.The basis of the new shares is the net asset value used to determine the dividend (i.e., the amount of the dividend used to purchase the new shares).

7. How is a mutual fund dividend taxed if it is declared for a prior year?

In some cases, a mutual fund may declare a dividend after the close of its taxable year and treat the dividend as having been paid in the prior year. This is often done in order for the fund to retain its status as a regulated investment company (because it must distribute a certain percentage of its income).

As a general rule, ordinary income dividends and capital gain dividends declared for a prior mutual fund tax year are treated as received and included in income by the shareholder in the year in which the distribution is made. Similarly, exempt-interest dividends for a prior mutual fund tax year are treated as received in the year when the distribution is made, but are not included in the shareholder’s income.

However, if a mutual fund declares a dividend in October, November, or December of a calendar year, which is payable to the shareholders on a specified date in such a month, the dividend is treated as having been received by the shareholders on December 31 of that year (so long as the dividend is actually paid during January of the subsequent calendar year). This rule applies to ordinary income dividends, capital gain dividends, and exempt-interest dividends.

8. How is a shareholder taxed when he or she sells, exchanges, or redeems mutual fund shares?

When a shareholder sells, exchanges, or redeems mutual fund shares, the shareholder will generally have a capital gain or loss. Whether such gain or loss is short-term or long-term usually depends on how long the shareholder held the shares before selling (or exchanging) them. If the shares were held for one year or less, the capital gain or loss will generally be short-term; the capital gain will generally be long-term if the shares were held for more than one year. 

The gain or loss is the difference between the shareholder’s adjusted tax basis in the shares (see below) and the amount realized from the sale, exchange, or redemption (which includes money plus the fair market value of any property received). 

In some cases, a company that manages mutual funds will allow shareholders in one mutual fund to exchange their shares for shares in another mutual fund managed by the same company without payment of an additional sales charge. Nevertheless, the exchange is treated as a taxable transaction; any gain or loss on the original shares must be reported as a capital gain or loss in the year the exchange occurs. The exchange does not qualify as a “like-kind” exchange, nor as a tax-free exchange of common stock for common stock, or preferred for preferred, in the same corporation. Because stock in each fund is “backed” by a different set of assets (i.e., the portfolio securities held by each fund), shares in the funds are neither common nor preferred stock in the managing company. Furthermore, such an exchange may be subject to special rules delaying an adjustment to basis for load charges if the exchanged shares were held for less than 90 days (see below).

In Paradiso v. Commissioner, the Tax Court stated that IRC Section 1031(a)(1), which provides for nonrecognition of gain or loss from like-kind exchanges, expressly does not apply to the sale of stock or other securities (citing IRC Sections 1031(a)(2)(B) and 1031(a)(2)(C)). Accordingly, the court held that the taxpayer realized taxable income from sales of mutual fund shares.

The Service has privately ruled that a mutual fund’s redemption of stock pursuant to a tender offer would constitute a single and isolated transaction that was not part of a periodic redemption plan; thus, the transaction would not result in an IRC Section 305 deemed distribution to any of the fund’s shareholders. The Service has also stated that no gain or loss was required to be recognized by shareholders on the conversion of institutional class shares to Class A shares of the same mutual fund. Each shareholder’s basis in the Class A shares would equal the shareholder’s basis in the converted institutional class shares immediately before the conversion, and each shareholder’s holding period for the Class A shares would include the shareholder’s holding period for the converted institutional class shares, provided that the shareholder held those converted shares as capital assets immediately before the conversion. In addition, the Service privately ruled that the conversion of two classes of mutual fund shares into a single class of shares, based on the relative net asset value of the respective shares, did not result in gain or loss to the shareholders.

If a shareholder purchases mutual fund shares, receives a capital gain dividend (or is credited with an undistributed capital gain), and then sells the shares at a loss within six months after purchasing the shares, the loss is treated as a long-term capital loss to the extent of the capital gain dividend (or undistributed capital gain). Similarly, if a shareholder purchases mutual fund shares, receives an exempt-interest dividend, and then sells the shares at a loss within six months after purchasing the shares, the loss (to the extent of the amount of the dividend) will be disallowed. In the case of a fund that regularly distributes at least 90 percent of its net tax-exempt interest, the regulations may prescribe that the holding period for application of the loss disallowance rule is less than six months (but not less than the longer of 31 days or the period between the regular distributions of exempt-interest dividends). For purposes of calculating the 6-month period, periods during which the shareholder’s risk of loss is diminished as a result of holding other positions in substantially similar or related property, or through certain options or short sales, are not counted. Regulations will provide a limited exception to these rules for shares sold pursuant to a periodic redemption plan.

9. What are the general requirements that must be met in order for a real estate investment trust (REIT) to qualify for pass-through tax treatment?

As the name suggests, a real estate investment trust (REIT) is required to invest primarily in assets that are closely connected to real estate. Permissible investments include ownership interests in real property, interest derived from loans where the underlying asset is real property and investments in other REITs.

Importantly, a REIT is required to distribute 90 percent of its annual earnings to shareholders. A company that meets the requirements described below will qualify as a REIT, and therefore be allowed to deduct from its corporate taxable income all of the dividends that it pays out to its shareholders.Because of this special tax treatment, most REITs pay out 100 percent of their taxable income (rather than simply meeting the 90 percent requirement) to shareholders and, therefore, owe no tax at the corporate level.

In addition to paying out at least 90 percent of its taxable income in the form of shareholder dividends, a REIT must meet several tests relating to its management, assets, income and diversification. Specifically, a REIT must:

•be an entity that would be taxable as a domestic corporation “but for” its REIT status;

•be managed by a board of directors or trustees; 

•have shares that are fully transferable;

•gave a minimum of 100 shareholders after its first year as a REIT;

•have no more than 50 percent of its shares held by five or fewer individuals during the last half of any taxable year;

•at the close of each quarter, have investments comprising at least 75 percent of its total assets that consist of real estate, cash (including receivables) and government securities. 

•derive at least 75 percent of its gross income from real estate related sources (real estate related sources include gain on the sale of real property, gain from the sale of, or dividends derived from, interests in other REITs, rents derived from real property and interest on mortgages financing real property).

•derive at least 95 percent of its gross income from a combination of real estate related sources and dividends or interest (from any source); and 

•have no more than 25 percent of its assets consist of non-government securities or stock in taxable REIT subsidiaries.

10. How are proceeds on the sale or retirement of a corporate bond taxed?

(1) If the sale occurs between interest due dates, as it generally does, stated interest accrued to the date of sale but not yet due is customarily added to the purchase price. This must be included in the seller’s income as interest.

(2) Proceeds in excess of item (1), above, are recovered tax-free to the extent of the investor’s adjusted basis in the bond. As a general rule, the investor’s adjusted basis is the cost of acquisition adjusted by (a) adding any original issue discount included in income as it accrued (see Q 7634, Q 7636) and market discount included in income prior to the sale, or (b) subtracting amounts of premium deductible or applied to reduce interest payments if an election was made to amortize bond premium.

(3) Ordinarily, amounts in excess of interest and basis are treated as capital gain – long-term or short-term, depending on the investor’s holding period. However, if the bond was originally issued at a discount or was purchased on the market at a discount, part or all of the gain must be treated as interest instead of capital gain, if the discount was not included in income as it accrued. (Discount that is less than ¼ of 1% (.0025) of face value multiplied by the number of complete years to maturity is considered no discount.)

(a) If the bond was issued after July 18, 1984, or if the bond was issued on or before July 18, 1984, and purchased on the market after April 30, 1993, gain to the extent it does not exceed market discount must be treated as interest income, not capital gain. If a bond issued on or before July 18, 1984 was acquired after July 18, 1984, but before May 1, 1993, at a market discount using borrowed funds, a part of the gain must be treated as ordinary income if a deferred interest expense deduction is taken.

(b) If the bond was originally issued at a discount of ¼ of 1% (.0025) or more of the face amount multiplied by the number of full years from issue to maturity and the seller had not purchased the bond at a premium, a part of any gain realized is treated as ordinary income in the following cases:

If the bond was issued after May 27, 1969, original issue discount is includable in income annually and basis is adjusted for amounts included; however, if at the time of original issue there was an intention to call the bond in for redemption before maturity, gain on sale or redemption is ordinary income up to the entire amount of the original issue discount reduced by the portions of original issue discount previously includable in income by any holder. 

If the bond was issued on or before May 27, 1969, and after December 31, 1954, any gain realized on sale or redemption is taxed as ordinary income to the extent of an amount that bears the same ratio to the total original issue discount as the number of full months the bond was held by the taxpayer bears to the number of full months from issue date to maturity date. Days amounting to less than a full month are not counted. The period the taxpayer held the bond must include any period it was held by another person if the bond has the same basis, in whole or in part, in the taxpayer’s hands as it would have in the hands of the other person. However, if there was an intention at the time of issue to call the bond before maturity, gain up to the entire original issue discount is included as ordinary income. 

If the obligation was issued before 1955, the Supreme Court has ruled that original issue discount serves the same purpose as interest and should be taxed as ordinary income rather than capital gain.

(4) If there was a loss on the sale or redemption, no original issue discount or market discount is recovered. Loss will be treated as a capital loss. However, if “substantially identical” obligations were acquired (or a contract for their acquisition was made) within 30 days before or 30 days after the sale, the loss will be subject to the “wash sale” rule. If the sale is made to a related party, the loss deduction may be disallowed.

(5) Amounts received on retirement are treated as amounts received on sale (but for obligations issued before 1955, only if the obligation was in coupon or registered form on March 1, 1954).

The installment method for reporting gain is not available for securities traded on an established securities market. As a result, gain from sale is included in income for the year in which the trade date occurs even if one or more payments are received in the subsequent tax year.

Generally, neither gain nor loss is recognized on a transfer between spouses, or between former spouses if incident to divorce.

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