Capital Gains Tax: What It Is, How It Works, and Current Rates (2024)

2024 Tax Rates for Long-Term Capital Gains
Filing Status0%15%20%
SingleUp to $47,025$47,025 to $518,000Over $518,000
Head of householdUp to $63,000$63,000 to $551,350Over $551,350
Married filing jointly and surviving spouseUp to $94,050$95,050 to $583,750Over $583,750
Married filing separatelyUp to $47,025$47,025 to $291,850Over $291,850

The tax rates for long-term capital gains are consistent with the trend to capital gains being taxed at lower rates than individual income, as this table demonstrates.

Special Capital Gains Tax Exceptions

Some categories of assets get different capital-gains tax treatment than the norm.

Collectibles

Short-term gains on collectibles, including art, antiques, jewelry, precious metals, and stamp collections, are taxed as ordinary income at graduated tax rates. However, long-term gains on collectibles are taxed as ordinary income but with a cap of 28%.

Owner-Occupied Real Estate

A different standard applies to realestate capital gains if you're selling your principal residence. Here's how it works: $250,000 of an individual's capital gains on the sale of a home are excluded from taxable income ($500,000 for those married filing jointly). This applies so long as the seller has owned and lived in the home for two years or more.

However, unlike with some other investments, capital losses from the sale of personal property, such as a home, are not deductible from gains. Here's how it can work. A single taxpayer who purchased a house for $200,000 and later sells their house for $500,000 had made a $300,000 profit on the sale. After applying the $250,000 exemption, this person must report a capital gain of $50,000, which is the amount subject to the capital gains tax.

In most cases, the costs of significant repairs and improvements to the home can be added to its cost, thus reducing the amount of taxable capital gain.

Investment Real Estate

Investors who own real estate are often allowed to take depreciation deductions against income to reflect the steady deterioration of the property as it ages. This is a decline in the home's physical condition and is unrelated to its changing value in the real estate market.

The deduction for depreciation essentially reduces the amount you're considered to have paid for the property in the first place. That in turn can increase your taxable capital gain if you sell the property. That's because the gap between the property's value after deductions and its sale price will be greater.

For example, if you paid $100,000 for a building and you're allowed to claim $5,000 in depreciation, you'll be taxed as if you'd paid $95,000 for the building. The $5,000 is then treated in a sale of the real estate asrecapturing those depreciation deductions.

The tax rate that applies to the recaptured amount is 25%. So if the person then sold the building for $110,000, there would be total capital gains of $15,000. Then, $5,000 of the sale figure would be treated as a recapture of the deduction from income. That recaptured amount is taxed at 25%. The remaining $10,000 of capital gain would be taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on the investor's income.

Investment Exceptions

If you have a high income, you may be subject to another levy, the net investment income tax.

This tax imposes an additional 3.8% of taxation on your investment income, including your capital gains, if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)—not your taxable income—exceeds certain maximums.

Those threshold amounts are $250,000 if married and filing jointly or a surviving spouse; $200,000 if you’re single or a head of household, and $125,000 if married, filing separately.

Calculating Your Capital Gains

Capital losses can be deducted from capital gains to calculate your taxable gains for the year.

The calculation becomes a little more complex if you've incurred capital gains and capital losses on both short-term and long-term investments. First, sort short-term gains and losses in a separate pile from long-term gains and losses. All short-term gains must be reconciled to yield a total short-term gain. Then the short-term losses are totaled. Finally, long-term gains and losses are tallied.

The short-term gains are netted against the short-term losses to produce a net short-term gain or loss. The same is done with the long-term gains and losses.

Capital Gains Calculator

Most individuals calculate their tax obligation (or have a pro do it for them) using software that automatically makes the computations. You can use a capital gains calculator to get a rough idea of what you may pay on a potential or actualized sale.

How to Avoid Capital Gains Taxes

If you want to invest money and make a profit, you will owe capital gains taxes on that profit. There are, however, a number of perfectly legal ways to minimize your capital gains taxes:

  • Hold your investment for more than one year. Otherwise, the profit is treated as regular income and you'll probably pay more.
  • Don't forget that your investment losses can be deducted from your investment profits. The amount of the excess loss that you can claim to lower your income is $3,000 a year. Some investors use that fact to good effect. For example, they'll sell a loser at the end of the year in order to have losses to offset their gains for the year. If your losses are greater than $3,000, you can carry the losses forward and deduct them from your capital gains in future years.
  • Keep track of any qualifying expenses that you incur in making or maintaining your investment. They will increase the cost basis of the investment and thus reduce its taxable profit.
  • Be mindful of tax-advantaged accounts. For example, holding securities in a 401(k) or IRA may limit the liquidity you have in your investment and options to withdraw funds. However, you may have greater capabilities in buying and selling securities without incurring taxes on gains.
  • Seek out exclusions. For example, if you want to sell your house, ensure you understand rules that allow you to exclude a portion of gains from the house sale. You should be mindful to intentionally meet criteria if you can to plan the timing of the sale and ensure you meet exclusion requirements.

Investopedia's Tax Savings Guide can help you maximize your tax credits, deductions, and savings. Order yours today.

Capital Gains Tax Strategies

The capital gains tax effectively reduces the overall return generated by the investment. But there is a legitimate way for some investors to reduce or even eliminate their net capital gains taxes for the year.

The simplest of strategies is to simply hold assets for more than a year before selling them. That's wise because the tax you will pay on long-term capital gains is generally lower than it would be for short-term gains.

1. Use Your Capital Losses

Capital losses will offset capital gains and effectively lower capital gains tax for the year. But what if the losses are greater than the gains?

Two options are open. If losses exceed gains by up to $3,000, you may claim that amount against your income. The loss rolls over, so any excess loss not used in the current year can be deducted from income to reduce your tax liability in future years.

For example, say an investor realizes a profit of $5,000 from the sale of some stocks but incurs a loss of $20,000 from selling others. The capital loss can be used to cancel out tax liability for the $5,000 gain. The remaining capital loss of $15,000 can then be used to offset income, and thus the tax on those earnings.

So, if an investor whose annual income is $50,000 can, in the first year, report $50,000 minus a maximum annual claim of $3,000. That makes a total of $47,000 in taxable income. The investor still has $12,000 of capital losses and can deduct the $3,000 maximum every year for the next four years.

2. Don't Break the Wash-Sale Rule

Be mindful of selling stock shares at a loss to get a tax advantage and then turning around and buying the same investment again. If you do that in 30 days or less, you will run afoul of the IRSwash-sale rule against this sequence of transactions. Material capital gains of any kind are reported on aSchedule D form.

Capital losses can be rolled forward to subsequent years to reduce any income in the future and lower the taxpayer's tax burden.

3. Use Tax-Advantaged Retirement Plans

Among the many reasons to participate in a retirement plan like a 401(k)s or IRA is that your investments grow from year to year without being subject to capital gains tax. In other words, within a retirement plan, you can buy and sell without paying taxes every year.

Most traditional tax-advantaged retirement plans do not require participants to pay tax on the funds until they are withdrawn from the plan. That said, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income regardless of the underlying investment.

With a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), for which income taxes are collected as the money is paid into the account, qualified withdrawals in retirement are tax-free.

4. Cash In After Retiring

As you approach retirement, consider waiting until you actually stop working to sell profitable assets. The capital gains tax bill might be reduced if your retirement income is lower. You may even be able to avoid having to pay capital gains tax at all.

In short, be mindful of the impact of taking the tax hit when working rather than after you're retired. Realizing the gain earlier might serve to bump you out of a low- or no-pay bracket and cause you to incur a tax bill on the gains.

5. Watch Your Holding Periods

Remember that an asset must be sold more than a year to the day after it was purchased in order for the sale to qualify for treatment as a long-term capital gain. If you are selling a security that was bought about a year ago, be sure to check the actual trade date of the purchase before you sell. You might be able to avoid its treatment as a short-term capital gain by waiting for only a few days.

These timing maneuvers matter more with large trades than small ones, of course. The same applies if you are in a higher tax bracket rather than a lower one.

6. Pick Your Basis

Most investors use thefirst-in, first-out (FIFO) method to calculate the cost basis when acquiring and selling shares in the same company or mutual fund at different times.

However, there are four other methods to choose from:last in, first out (LIFO),dollar value LIFO,average cost(only for mutual fund shares), andspecific share identification.

The best choice will depend on several factors, such as the basis price of shares or units that were purchased and the amount of gain that will be declared. You may need to consult a tax advisor for complex cases.

Computing your cost basis can be a tricky proposition. If you use an online broker, your statements will be on its website. In any case, be sure you have accurate records in some form.

Finding out when a security was purchased and at what price can be a nightmare if you have lost the original confirmation statement or other records from that time. This is especially troublesome if you need to determine exactly how much was gained or lost when selling a stock, so be sure to keep track of your statements. You'll need those dates for the Schedule D form.

What Are Capital Gain Taxes?

Capital gain taxes are taxes imposed on the profit of the sale of an asset. The capital gains tax rate will vary by taxpayer based on the holding period of the asset, the taxpayer's income level, and the nature of the asset that was sold.

When Do You Owe Capital Gains Taxes?

You owe the tax on capital gains for the year in which you realize the gain. Capital gains taxes are owed on the profits from the sale of most investments if they are held for at least one year. If the investments are held for less than one year, the profits are considered short-term gains and are taxed as ordinary income. For most people, that's a higher rate.

Do I Have to Pay Capital Gains Taxes Immediately?

In most cases, you must pay the capital gains tax after you sell an asset. It may become fully due in the subsequent year tax return. In some cases, the IRS may require quarterly estimated tax payments. Though the actual tax may not be due for a while, you may incur penalties for having a large payment due without having made any installment payments towards.

What Is Good About Reducing the Capital Gains Tax Rate?

Proponents of a low rate on capital gains argue that it is a great incentive to save money and invest it in stocks and bonds. That increased investment fuels growth in the economy. Businesses have the money to expand and innovate, creating more jobs.

They also point out that investors are using after-tax income to buy those assets. The money they use to buy stocks or bonds has already been taxed as ordinary income, and adding a capital gains tax is double taxation.

The Bottom Line

Capital gains taxes are levied on earnings made from the sale of assets like stocks or real estate. Based on the holding term and the taxpayer's income level, the tax is computed using the difference between the asset's sale price and its acquisition price, and it is subject to different rates.

Correction—Jan. 9, 2024: A typo was updated to correctly state the income rate for married filing jointly row of the 2024 Tax Rates for Long-Term Capital Gains chart.

Correction—April 9, 2024: This article has been edited to explain that short-term gains on collectibles are taxed as ordinary income, and long-term gains on collectibles have a cap of 28%.

Capital Gains Tax: What It Is, How It Works, and Current Rates (2024)

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