How Are Qualified and Ordinary Dividends Taxed?

The tax treatment of dividends in the U.S. depends on whether the Internal Revenue Code classifies them as "qualified dividends" or "ordinary dividends." (Ordinary dividends are also referred to as nonqualified dividends.) Qualified dividends are taxed at the same rates as the capital gains tax rate; these rates are lower than ordinary income tax rates.

The tax rates for ordinary dividends (typically those that are paid out from most common or preferred stocks) are the same as standard federal income tax rates, or 10% to 37% for the tax year 2021 and 2022. Investors pay taxes on ordinary dividends at the same rates they pay on regular income, such as salary or wages. Income-tax and capital gains rates change over time, but in recent years, the latter have been substantially lower than the former.

Key Takeaways

  • The tax treatment of dividends in the U.S. depends on whether the Internal Revenue Code classifies them as "qualified dividends" or "ordinary dividends."
  • Qualified dividends are taxed at the same rates as the capital gains tax rate; these rates are lower than ordinary income tax rates.
  • The tax rates for ordinary dividends are the same as standard federal income tax rates; 10% to 37%.

Qualified Dividends vs. Ordinary Dividends

A dividend is a portion of a company's earnings paid directly to shareholders. Companies that offer dividends pay a fixed amount per share and can adjust it up or down with each earnings period (usually a calendar quarter), based on how the company is doing. The investor must pay taxes on their dividends, but how much they pay depends on whether the dividends are qualified or ordinary.

Qualified dividends, which receive more favorable tax treatment, must meet a few criteria. They must be issued by U.S. corporations publicly traded on major exchanges, such as Dow Jones or NASDAQ. The investor must own them for at least 60 days out of a 121-day holding period. Certain dividends—such as those derived from an employee stock ownership plan or issued by a tax-exempt organization—are not eligible for qualified status.

There is no significant difference between qualified and ordinary dividends apart from their tax treatment.

Qualified-Dividend Tax Treatment

Investors favor qualified dividends because they are subject to lower tax rates, namely those levied on long-term capital gains rather than those charged on ordinary income. That's true regardless of the investor's tax bracket, though the biggest savings accrue to investors in the top two brackets, where the tax rate difference between the two types of dividends can be as much as 20%.

Currently, the tax schedule for qualified dividends features only three levels: 0%, 15%, and 20%.

The tax brackets are as follows:

Dividend Tax Rates for Tax Year 2021
Tax Rate Single Married, Filing Jointly Married, Filing Separately Head of Household
0% $0 - $40,400 $0 to $80,800 $0 to $40,400 $0 to $54,100
15% $40,401 - $445,850 $80,801 to $501,600 $40,401 to $250,800  $54,101 to $473,750 
20% $445,851 or more $501,601 or more  $250,801 or more $473,751 or more
Dividend Tax Rates for Tax Year 2022
Tax Rate Single Married, Filing Jointly Married, Filing Separately Head of Household
0% $0 to $41,675 $0 to $83,350 $0 to $41,675 $0 to $55,800
15%  $41,676 to $459,750 $83,351 to $517,200 $41,676 to $258,600 $55,801 to $488,500
20%  $459,751 or more $517,201 or more $258,601 or more $488,501 or more 

Individuals earning $200,000 or more, and married couples earning $250,000 more, pay an additional 3.8% on investment income, including qualified dividends.

Example of How Dividends Are Taxed

To see the difference these two tax treatments make, imagine an investor with 5,000 shares of Company X that generate $2 each in ordinary dividends, or $10,000 a year. Assume he is single and has a taxable income of $50,000 a year, placing him in the 22% marginal income rate bracket for ordinary income.

Since ordinary dividends receive no special tax treatment, he pays 22%, or $2,200, in taxes on his dividends. However, if his dividend is qualified, he pays a 15% rate, based on his income, or $1,500.

Imagine the same investor, still single, earns a taxable income of $1 million per year, excluding dividends from 50,000 shares of Company X stock. At $2 per share, his yearly dividend is $100,000. Taxed at the 37% top marginal rate, he owes $37,000 in federal taxes on the dividends if they're ordinary, but only $20,000 if they are qualified, a $17,000 savings.

What Rates Are Dividends Taxed At?

If your dividends are qualified dividends they will be taxed at the capital gains tax rate of either 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on your income tax bracket. If your dividends are ordinary dividends (nonqualified), they will be taxed at your regular marginal income tax rate.

Are Dividends Taxed Twice?

Yes, dividends are taxed twice, a concept known as double taxation. The first round of taxes occurs on the earnings of a company. Dividends come from a company's earnings and then are distributed to shareholders. Shareholders then have to also pay tax on the dividends they receive.

How Do I Minimize the Taxes I Pay on Dividends?

One way to minimize taxes paid on dividends is to try to have qualified dividends, those that incur a lower tax rate than nonqualified dividends. Another method is opening a tax-advantaged brokerage account, such as an IRA, where you can defer taxes paid until you are in a lower income tax bracket when you withdraw from the account.

The Bottom Line

Dividends can be a great way to earn an income stream from your investments, but, like all income, they are also taxed. Depending on the type of dividend, qualified or nonqualified, you will be taxed at either your ordinary income tax bracket or the capital gains tax brackets, the latter of which is usually a lower tax rate.

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