Profits and losses from selling stocks must be reported to the IRS as they affect your net income. However, the amount you are taxed varies greatly depending on timing and nature of the sale.
You Are Only Taxed When You Sell
Whether your portfolio gains or loses value is of no concern to the IRS. They only take note when you sell a stock and realize a profit or a loss. This is a taxable event and must be reported.
Timing Affects Your Tax Rate
Tax laws are written to favor investors who buy and hold stocks as opposed to speculators who trade frequently. For this reason, if you sell a stock more than a year after you buy it, your tax rate is 15 percent. This special rate is called "Long Term Capital Gains Tax." Of course, this only helps you if your tax rate on income exceeds 15 percent, which is true for most people who own stocks.
If you sell a stock less than a year from when you bought it, the profit is taxed as regular income.
Stock Market Losses Reduce Your Taxable Income
If you lose money on a stock transaction, the loss can count against your taxable income up to $3,000 for individuals and $1,500 for those filing separately from their spouse. If you loss exceeds $3,000, you can deduct the remainder from a future year.
Some people use this strategy to reduce their taxable income during a year when they made more money than usual. They sell a losing stock to realize the loss, and then sometimes buy it right back, hoping to realize the gain during a year when their income is lower.
If you plan to do this, talk to a tax professional, as they can give you a clearer picture as to when it will be most advantageous to reduce your taxable income.
Likewise, you should consult with a CPA if you are selling stock options, as the tax laws regarding these transactions are complex. There are also special tax breaks you can claim if you are selling a stock you have owned for over five years and it is classified as an American small business, which means it has less than $50 million in assets. Again, this law is designed to reward buy-and-hold investors, and an accountant can help you with the details of claiming the tax break.
Put Money Aside
In general, if you sell a stock for a profit, put aside at least 15 percent of the profit to pay taxes. That way, you can enjoy your earnings without worrying about an impending bill from the IRS.
Ethan Markowitz is a freelance training and marketing specialist living in Los Angeles, CA. While earning his MBA part-time at UCLA, he consults for several entertainment and hi-tech companies and has a proven track record increasing sales, customer retention, and brand awareness.