What is the long-term capital gains tax?

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So you’ve made some money investing — or really any asset trade where you came out ahead. Congrats on the big score.

But don’t count your profits too quickly, because Uncle Sam wants his cut of your gains, too. If you’ve made money on an investment, then you’ve earned a capital gain and you’ll have to pay tax on it.

And what you pay depends on how long you’ve held onto those assets. If you have a long-term capital gain – meaning you held the asset more than a year – you’ll owe either 0 percent, 15 percent or 20 percent, depending on how much overall income you have.

Capital gains tax: Short-term vs. long-term

Capital gains taxes are divided into two big groups, short-term and long-term, depending on how long you’ve held the asset.

Here are the differences:

  • Short-term capital gains tax is a tax applied to profits from selling an asset you’ve held for less than a year. Short-term capital gains taxes are pegged to where your income places you in federal tax brackets, so you’ll pay them at the same rate you’d pay your ordinary income taxes.
  • Long-term capital gains tax is a tax applied to assets held for more than a year. The long-term capital gains tax rates are 0 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent, depending on your income. These rates are typically much lower than the ordinary income tax rate.

Sales of real estate and other types of assets have their own specific form of capital gains, and are governed by their own set of rules (discussed below).

What are the capital gains tax rates?

While the capital gains tax rates remained the same as before under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the income required to qualify for each bracket goes up each year to account for workers’ increasing incomes. Here are the details on capital gains rates for the 2020 and 2021 tax years.

Long-term capital gains tax rates for the 2020 tax year

Filing Status 0% rate 15% rate 20% rate
Single Up to $40,000 $40,001 – $441,450 Over $441,450
Married filing jointly Up to $80,000 $80,001 – $496,600 Over $496,600
Married filing separately Up to $40,000 $40,001 – $248,300 Over $248,300
Head of household Up to $53,600 $53,601 – $469,050 Over $469,050

Source: Internal Revenue Service 

Long-term capital gains tax rates for the 2021 tax year

Filing Status 0% rate 15% rate 20% rate
Single Up to $40,400 $40,401 – $445,850 Over $445,850
Married filing jointly Up to $80,800 $80,801 – $501,600 Over $501,600
Married filing separately Up to $40,400 $40,401 – $250,800 Over $250,800
Head of household Up to $54,100 $54,101 – $473,750 Over $473,750

Source: Internal Revenue Service 

For example, in 2020, individual filers won’t pay any capital gains tax if their total taxable income is $40,000 or below. However, they’ll pay 15 percent on capital gains if their income is $40,001 to $441,450. Above that income level, the rate jumps to 20 percent.

In 2021, individual filers won’t pay any capital gains tax if their total taxable income is $40,400 or less. The rate jumps to 15 percent on capital gains, if their income is $40,401 to $445,850. Above that income level the rate climbs to 20 percent.

In addition, those capital gains may be subject to the net investment income tax (NIIT), an additional levy of 3.8 percent if the taxpayer’s income is above certain amounts. The income thresholds depend on the filer’s status (individual, married filing jointly, etc.).

Meanwhile, for short-term capital gains, the tax brackets for ordinary income taxes apply. The 2020 tax brackets are 10 percent, 12 percent, 22 percent, 24 percent, 32 percent, 35 percent, and 37 percent.

Unlike the long-term capital gains tax rate, there is no 0 percent rate or 20 percent ceiling for short-term capital gains taxes.

While capital gains taxes can be annoying, some of the best investments, such as stocks, allow you to skip the taxes on your gains as long as you don’t realize those gains by selling the position. So you could literally hold your investments for decades and owe no taxes on those gains.

How capital gains taxes work

If you buy $5,000 worth of stock in May and sell it in December of the same year for $5,500, you’ve made a short-term capital gain of $500. If you’re in the 22 percent tax bracket, you have to pay the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)$110 of your $500 capital gains. That leaves you with a net gain of $390.

Instead, if you hold on to the stock until the following December and then sell it, at which point it has earned $700, it’s a long-term capital gain. If your total income is $50,000, then you’ll fall in the 15 percent bracket for that long-term capital gain. Instead of paying $110, you’ll pay $105, and see $595 worth of net profit instead.

What counts as a capital gain?

If you sell an asset for more than you paid for it, that’s a capital gain. But much of what you own will experience depreciation over time, so the sale of most possessions will never be considered capital gains. However, you’re still liable for capital gains taxes on anything you purchase and resell for a gain.

For example, if you sell artwork, a vintage car, a boat, or jewelry for more than you paid for it, that’s considered a capital gain.

Property such as real estate and collectibles, including art and antiques, fall under special capital gains rules. These gains specify different and sometimes higher tax rates (discussed below).

And don’t forget that if you’ve sold cryptocurrency such as bitcoin for a gain, then you’ll also be liable for capital gains taxes.

What is the capital gains tax on property sales?

Again, if you make a profit on the sale of any asset, it’s considered a capital gain. With real estate, however, you may be able to avoid some of the tax hit, because of special tax rules.

For profits on your main home to be considered long-term capital gains, the IRS says you have to own the home AND live in it for two of the five years leading up to the sale. In this case, you can exempt up to $250,000 in profits from capital gains taxes if you sold the house as an individual, or up to $500,000 in profits if you sold it as a married couple filing jointly.

If you’re just flipping a home for a profit, however, you could be subjected to a steep short-term capital gains tax if you buy and sell a house within a year or less.

25 percent capital gains rate for certain real estate

However, the rules differ for investment property, which is typically depreciated over time. In this case, a 25 percent rate applies to the part of the gain from selling real estate you depreciated. The IRS wants to recapture some of the tax breaks you’ve been getting via depreciation throughout the years on assets known as Section 1250 property. Basically this rule keeps you from getting a double tax break on the same asset.

You’ll have to complete the worksheet in the instructions for Schedule D on your tax return to figure your gain (and tax rate) for this asset, or your tax software will do the figuring for you. More details on this type of holding and its taxation are available in IRS Publication 544.

If you’re considering a real estate investment, compare mortgage rates on Bankrate.

Small business stock and collectibles: 28 percent capital gains rate

Two categories of capital gains are subject to the 28 percent rate: small business stock and collectibles.

If you realized a gain from qualified small business stock that you held for more than five years, you generally can exclude one-half of your gain from income. The remaining gain is taxed at a 28 percent rate. You can get the specifics on gains on qualified small business stock in IRS Publication 550.

If your gains came from collectibles rather than a business sale, you’ll also pay the 28 percent rate. This includes proceeds from the sale of:

  • A work of art
  • Antiques
  • Gems
  • Stamps
  • Coins
  • Precious metals
  • Wine or brandy collections

What if I lose money on investments?

If you have capital losses from investments, you’ll certainly want to claim them on your taxes, because you’ll be able to use them to offset any other capital gains you have. However, losses on personal property, including your own home, cannot be deducted from your taxes.

The IRS looks at the total of your capital gains when calculating tax, which means your losses can offset some of the gains and soften the hit a bit. So you or your financial planner can strategically balance out your winners with some losers to minimize your taxes.

If you have more losses than gains, you can even claim a net loss – up to $3,000 annually as an individual or married filing jointly – and reduce your overall tax burden. Many taxpayers make sure that they’re taking any loss they’re entitled to, in order to minimize their tax burden. It’s a practice called tax-loss harvesting, and it can save you money come April 15.

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