The markets are hitting all-time highs, so if you are thinking of selling stocks now or in the near future, there is a good chance that you will have capital gains on the sale. If you’ve held the stocks for more than a year, then they will qualify for the more favorable long-term capital gains tax (instead of being taxed at ordinary income rates for short-term sales). But the total tax due can still be enough to warrant some tax planning. Luckily, the tax laws provide for several ways to defer or even completely avoid paying taxes on your securities sales.
1. Using Tax Losses
Utilizing losses is the least attractive of all the options in this article since you obviously had to lose money on one security in order to avoid paying taxes on another. The real play here is what is often referred to as tax-loss harvesting. This is where you purposely sell shares that are at a loss position in order to offset the gains on profitable sales and then redeploy this capital somewhere else. You’ll need to carefully weigh where to put the money from the sale of the shares sold at a loss as you can’t just buy the same stocks back. This is considered a “wash sale” and invalidates the strategy.
2. The 10 Percent to 15 Percent Tax Bracket
For taxpayers in either the 10 percent or 12 percent income tax brackets, their long-term capital gains rate is 0 percent. The income caps for qualifying for the 12 percent income tax rate is $39,375 for single filers and $78,750 for joint filers in 2019 ($40,000 and $80,000, respectively in 2020). Also, keep in mind that the stock sales themselves add to this limit – so calculate carefully.
Aside from selling appreciated securities yourself, another way to take advantage of the 0 percent bracket is to gift the stock to someone else instead of selling the securities and then giving the cash. Beware, however, as trying to do this with your kids can disqualify the 0 percent treatment because the kiddie tax is triggered on gifted stock sold to children younger than 19 or under 24 if a full-time student.
Donating appreciated securities is where we start to get into more beneficial strategies. This technique only makes sense if you were already planning to make charitable contributions. Say for example you are planning to donate $10,000 to an organization and are in the 25 percent tax bracket. In order to write a donation check for $10,000, you would have had to earn $13,333 in income to sell the same amount of stock in order to have $10,000 left after taxes to make a cash donation in that amount.
If you donate appreciated stock instead, you only need to donate securities valued at $10,000 and you get to deduct $10,000 as a charitable deduction. That avoids the capital gains tax completely. Plus, it generates for you a bigger tax deduction for the full market value of donated shares held more than one year – and it results in a larger donation.
4. Qualified Opportunity Zones
This is the newest and most complicated (as well as controversial) way to defer or avoid capital gains taxes. Opportunity Zones were created via the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to encourage investment in low-income and distressed communities. Qualified Opportunity Zones can defer or eliminate capital gains tax by utilizing three mechanisms through Opportunity Funds – the investment vehicle that invests in Opportunity Zones.
First, they offer a temporary deferral of taxes on previously earned capital gains if investors place existing assets into Opportunity Funds. These capital gains defer taxation until the end of 2026 or whenever the asset is disposed of – whichever is first.
Second, capital gains placed in Opportunity Funds for a minimum of five years receive a step-up in basis of 10 percent – and if held for at least seven years, 15 percent.
Third, they offer an opportunity to permanently avoid taxation on new capital gains. If the opportunity fund is held for at least 10 years, the investor will pay no tax on capital gains earned through the Opportunity Fund.
Again, the caveat here is that the details of Opportunity Zone investments can be extremely complicated, so it’s best not to attempt this one on your own. Consult with your tax advisor.
5. Die with Appreciated Stock
Unfortunately, while probably the least popular method for readers, this is certainly the most effective. When a person passes away, the cost basis of their securities receives a step-up in basis to the fair market value to the date of their death. As an example, if you purchased Amazon stock for $50 per share and when you pass away it is worth $1,700 per share, your heir’s basis in the inherited stock is $1,700. This means if they sell it at $1,700, they pay no tax at all.
None of the above methods are loopholes or tax dodges; they are all completely legitimate. However, your ability to take advantage of these techniques will depend on your income level, personal goals, and even your age. As a result, it’s best to consult with your tax advisor to see what makes sense for your personal situation.