Employees and self-employed people have to pay federal income tax on earnings related to work, but the government also imposes income tax on various sources of passive income. Passive income or unearned income describes income that does not require active work, such as interest credited to savings accounts and investment income. The federal income tax rate on unearned income varies from one type of passive income to another. Note that the tax rate for passive income will differ for the 2018 tax year, as the new tax bill signed in December, 2017 changes some of these provisions.
The amount of tax you will pay on passive income will largely depend on the amount of income you generated and the ways in which it was obtained. For example, income from interest or short-term capital gains will be taxed according to standard income tax rates, while qualified dividends will be taxed according to long-term capital gains rates if you made more than $38,600 in ordinary income.
Passive Income Tax Treatment
Different types of passive income have different tax rules. For example, interest income is considered ordinary income. Financial institutions like banks offer various interest-bearing deposit accounts like savings accounts, money market accounts and certificates of deposit. Interest income credited to an account that is available for withdrawal without penalty is included in your normal taxable income, so the tax rate on interest is your normal income tax rate.
Cash dividends are periodic payments that corporation and mutual fund companies can make to shareholders. Dividends are divided into two categories for income taxes: ordinary dividends and qualified dividends. As described below, dividends have their own tax rate. A dividend is generally considered qualified if it is paid on stock you held more than 60 days during the 121-day period that began 60 days before the ex-dividend date, which is first date new investors are not entitled to receive the stock's next dividend. Ordinary dividends are those that don't meet the criteria to be considered qualified; ordinary dividends are subject to your normal income tax rate.
Other Important Considerations
If you sell an asset like a stock or mutual fund at a price that is higher than the amount you paid, the difference or profit you realize is a capital gain. Capital gains are divided into two categories: short-term gains and long-term gains. Short-term gains are profits realized from the sale of assets you hold a year or less, while long-term gains are profits gained from selling assets you hold longer than a year.
Alimony and child support payments are forms of passive income that are treated differently on tax returns. Alimony received must be included with the rest of your ordinary income for federal income taxes. Child support payments received are not subject to income tax.
Social Security retirement benefits may or may not be taxable depending on your annual income. If your annual income is more than $34,000 as a single taxpayer or $44,000 as a joint filer, up to 85 percent of your Social Security may be included in your ordinary income and taxed at your normal income tax rate. If your income is under $25,000 as a single taxpayer or $32,000 as a joint filer, you don't pay tax on Social Security benefits. If your income is between $25,000 and $34,000 as a single filer or $32,000 and $44,000 as a joint filer, up to 50 percent of your benefits are taxable.
Passive Income Tax Rate for 2018
For the 2018 tax year, the tax brackets have changed for ordinary income. This means that any passive income you earn that is taxed as ordinary income, like short-term capital gains, ordinary dividends and interest income, will be taxed anywhere from 10 to 37 percent depending on the amount of income.
Qualified dividends are taxed the same as long-term capital gains. In 2018, you can earn up to $38,600 in ordinary income without being taxed on long-term capital gains or qualified dividends. If you earn between $38,600 and $425,800 in ordinary income, your long-term capital gains tax rate is 15 percent, which would also apply to qualified dividends. If you make more than $425,800, the rate is 20 percent.
Passive Income Tax Rate for 2017
For 2017, passive income that is taxed as ordinary income will be taxed in the 2017 tax brackets, and so the income tax rates range from 10 to 39.6 percent depending on your annual income. Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at zero, 15 and 20 percent for 2017, but the brackets are different. So you can earn up to $37,950 in the 2017 tax year without paying taxes on these gains; if you earn between $37,950 and $418,400, the gains are taxed at 15 percent; and if you earn more than $418,400, your gains are taxed at 20 percent.
- IRS: Investment Income
- IRS: Topic 403 - Interest Received
- IRS: Topic 409 - Capital Gains and Losses
- IRS: Publication 504 - Main Content
- Nolo: Child Support and Taxes
- U.S. Social Security Administration: Benefits Planner -- Income Taxes and Your Social Security Benefits
- IRS: Tax Information for Non-Custodial Parents
- Charles Schwab: New Tax Law: Here’s What You Should Know
- Bankrate: Do I Have to Pay Tax on my Social Security?
- The Motley Fool: Long-Term Capital Gains Tax Rates in 2017
- SmartAsset: The Dividend Tax Rate for 2018
Gregory Hamel has been a writer since September 2008 and has also authored three novels. He has a Bachelor of Arts in economics from St. Olaf College. Hamel maintains a blog focused on massive open online courses and computer programming.