taxes

No capital gains due for some investors

Taxable, not gross, income

Taxable income, that amount on which you figure how much you owe Uncle Sam, is reached by starting with your gross, or total, income and subtracting any adjustments (also known as above-the-line deductions), your deductions (either standard or itemized) and your personal exemptions.

Depending upon your deductions, your gross income could be substantially more than the income threshold, but you'd still be eligible for the zero tax rate.

For instance, for the 2013 tax year, taxable income of $72,500 for a married couple, which is the top of the joint filers' 15 percent bracket, with two children and who use the standard deduction, translates to an adjusted gross income of $100,300.

Figuring adjusted gross income

Zero percent taxable capital gains income threshold$72,500
Standard married filing jointly deduction and$12,200
Personal exemptions (4 x $3,900)+ $15,600
Adjusted gross income$100,300

And even if your total taxable income is more than the threshold amounts, you might qualify for some tax-free capital gains. "The zero percent rate does not phase out in the same way deduction phaseouts work," says Scharin. "You're looking at other income as well, and you get the zero percent capital gains rate to the extent that your other taxable income is below that threshold."

For example, consider a married couple with $75,000 taxable income, with $65,000 of that from wages and $10,000 from capital gains. Although their total taxable income exceeds their $72,500 limit, they pay no tax on $7,500 of the capital gains. That's the amount by which the taxable threshold exceeds their income that's subject to ordinary tax rates. And the excess $2,500 in capital gains would be taxed at 15 percent, the regular capital gains rate for taxpayers in the 25 percent tax bracket.

While basing the cutoff on taxable instead of adjusted gross income means more investors should be able to take advantage of the no-tax law, practically speaking, the change might not have that much of an effect.

"People at more moderate income brackets tend not to have a lot of capital gains," Scharin says. "They may have a mutual fund that paid out a little during the year."

In fact, many zero-rate eligible individuals tend to invest primarily in tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as traditional individual retirement accounts or 401(k)s. In these cases, the elimination of the capital gains tax is of no use, as these holdings are taxed at ordinary income rates.

Kathy Harrison-Suits, an enrolled agent now retired from Summit Capital Advisors based in Tacoma, Wash., sees a similar pattern. "Typically, what we find is people in those tax brackets are in two batches," she says. "They either have no savings and are not buying mutual funds and stocks, so it has no effect on them. Or they are retirees and pre-retirees, whose incomes have dropped and they have made investments and do have capital gains within their portfolios."

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