Many people have heard the Benjamin Franklin quote, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Mutual fund taxes can be onerous. However, if you understand the complexities of mutual fund taxes and are prepared when tax season comes around, you may be able to lessen the blow.
The first thing to remember is that you generally must report any mutual fund distributions as income. Even if you reinvest your profits, the federal government still views this as personal income. Your mutual fund will send you a Form 1099-DIV describing what earnings to report on your income tax return. There are two main ways that mutual funds are taxed: dividends and capital gains.
Dividends represent the net earnings of the fund. Qualified dividends, with some exceptions, are dividends received from domestic and foreign corporations after 2002. Foreign dividends must be securities that are traded on U.S. exchanges or have IRS approval.
Capital gains are profits from investor trading or distributions given to shareholders after revenue is taken in from the fund manager’s sales of securities. Provisions in the tax law allow you to pay lower capital gains taxes on the sale of assets held more than one year. These are referred to as “long term” capital gains.
Long-term capital gains (assets held for more than one year) and qualified dividends (dividends that meet the requirements to be taxed as capital gains), are taxed at either the 0%, 15%, or 20% rate (or breakpoint).
Short-term gains — those resulting from the sale of assets held for one year or less — are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.
Higher-income taxpayers should be aware that they may be subject to an additional 3.8% Medicare unearned income tax on net investment income (unearned income includes dividends) if their adjusted gross income exceeds $200,000 (single filers) or $250,000 (married joint filers).
This means that if you’ve been buying shares in a stock or mutual fund over the years and are considering selling part of your holdings, your tax liability could be significantly impacted by the timing of your sale.
One way to potentially reduce the amount of mutual fund taxes you could pay is by utilizing a tax-exempt bond fund. Distributions from these types of funds are attributable to interest from state and local municipal bonds, so they are exempt from federal income tax (not necessarily state tax). If a bond was issued by a municipality outside the state in which you reside, the interest could be subject to state and local income taxes. Some municipal bond interest could be subject to the federal alternative minimum tax.