What Is the Capital Gains Tax?

The capital gains tax is a levy on the profit from an investment that is incurred when the investment is sold.

When stock shares or any other taxable assets are sold, the capital gains, or profits, are referred to as having been "realized." The tax doesn't apply to unsold investments or "unrealized capital gains," so stock shares will not incur taxes until they are sold, no matter how long the shares are held or how much they increase in value.

Under current federal tax policy, the capital gains tax rate applies only to profits from the sale of assets held for more than a year, referred to as "long-term capital gains." The rates are 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on the taxpayer's tax bracket for that year.

Short-term capital gains tax applies to assets held for a year or less, and are taxed as ordinary income. For most taxpayers, that is a higher tax rate than the capital gains rate.

Key Takeaways

  • Capital gains tax is due only after the investment is sold.
  • Capital gains taxes apply only to “capital assets,” which include stocks, bonds, jewelry, coin collections, and real estate.
  • For most taxpayers, long-term gains are taxed at a lower rate than short-term gains.
  • Capital gains can be offset by capital losses. Some investors sell losing investments to lower the capital gains taxes they owe.
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Capital Gains Tax

Understanding the Capital Gains Tax

Most taxpayers pay a higher rate on their income than on any long-term capital gains they may have realized. That gives them a financial incentive to hold investments for at least a year when the tax on the profit will be lower.

Day traders and others taking advantage of the ease and speed of trading online need to be aware that any profits they make from buying and selling assets held less than a year are not just taxed—they are taxed at a higher rate.

Taxable capital gains for the year can be reduced by the total capital losses incurred in that year. In other words, your tax is due on the net capital gain. There is a $3,000 maximum per year on reported losses, but leftover losses can be carried forward to the following tax years.

President Biden is proposing to raise long-term capital gains taxes for individuals earning $1 million or more to 39.6%. Added to the existing 3.8% investment surtax on higher-income investors, the tax could rise to 43.4%, not counting state taxes.

Capital Gains Tax Rates 2021

The profit on an asset that is sold less than a year after it is purchased is generally treated for tax purposes as if it were wages or salary. Such gains are added to your earned income or ordinary income.

The same generally applies to dividends paid by an asset, which represent profit although they aren't capital gains. In the U.S., dividends are taxed as ordinary income for taxpayers who are in the 15% and higher tax brackets.

A different system applies, however, for long-term capital gains. The tax you pay on assets held for more than a year and sold at a profit varies according to a rate schedule based on income thresholds. For 2021, those rates are shown in the table below:

Tax Rates for Long-Term Capital Gains
 
Filing Status
 
0%
 
15%
 
20%
 
Single
 
Up to $40,400

$40,401 to $445,850

Over $445,850
 
Head of household
 
Up to $54,100
 
$54,101 to $473,750

Over $473,750
 
Married filing jointly and surviving spouse
 
Up to $80,800

$80,801 to $501,600

Over $501,600
 
Married filing separately
 
Up to $40,400

$40,401 to $250,800

Over $250,800
Here's how much you'll pay for tax year 2021 on the gains from taxable assets you've held for a year or more.


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 Rates and Exceptions

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

Collectibles

Gains on collectibles, including art, antiques, jewelry, precious metals, and stamp collections, are taxed at a 28% rate, regardless of your income. So if you're in a lower bracket than 28%, you'll be levied at this higher tax rate. If you're in a tax bracket with a higher rate, your capital gains taxes will be limited to the 28% rate.

Owner-Occupied Real Estate

Real estate capital gains are taxed under a different standard 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 his 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.

Example of Depreciation Deduction

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 as recapturing 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 or 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. 

Computing Your Capital Gains

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

The calculations become 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.

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

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 for short-term gains.

1. Use Any Excess in Capital Losses in Other Ways

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, before turning around and buying the same investment again. If you do that within 30 days or less, you can run afoul of the IRS wash-sale rule against this sequence of transactions.

Material capital gains of any kind must be reported on a Schedule D form.

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

3. Use Tax-Advantaged Retirement Plans

Among the many reasons to hold retirement plans, including 401(k)s403(b)sRoth IRAs, and traditional IRAs, is that your investments grow within them without being subject to capital gains tax. In other words, within a retirement plan, you can buy and sell without losing a cut to Uncle Sam every year.

Most 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.

If you wait to withdraw money until after retiring, you'll probably be in a lower tax bracket. Your money will also have grown in a tax-free environment.

3. Time Gains Around Retirement 

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 low enough. 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.

4. Watch Your Holding Periods 

Remember that a security must be sold after more than a year to the day 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.

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.

5. Pick Your Basis 

Most investors use the first-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 LIFOaverage cost (only for mutual fund shares), and specific 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 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 real 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 Is a Capital Gains Tax?

You pay a capital gains tax on the profits of an investment that is held for more than one year. (If it's held for less time, the profit is taxed as ordinary income, and that's usually a higher rate.) You don't owe any tax on your investment's profit until you sell it.

What Is the Current Capital Gains Tax?

The current capital gains tax of most investments is 0%, 15%, or 20% of the profit, depending on your overall income. One big exception: If you sell the home you live in, up to $250,000 of the profit is is excluded from taxes. (It's $500,000 for those married filing jointly.)

How Can I Legally Reduce My Capital Gains Taxes?

There are a number of perfectly legal ways to minimize your capital gains taxes:


  • Hang onto your investment for more than one year. Otherwise, the profit is not treated as a capital gain, it's treated as regular income, meaning you'll probably pay more.
  • Also, keep in mind that your investment losses can be deducted from your investment profits, at a rate of up to $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.
  • If you're saving for retirement, consider a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k). You won't owe capital gains taxes on the profits after retiring.
  • Keep track of any qualifying expenses that you incur in making or maintaining your investment. They can increase the cost basis of the investment and thereby reduce its taxable profit.