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Fine-Tuning Capital Gains and Losses

The year’s end has historically been a good time to plan tax savings by carefully structuring capital gains and losses. Let’s consider some possibilities.

If there are losses to date - As an example, suppose the stocks and other capital assets that were sold already during the year result in a net loss and that there are other investment assets still owned by the taxpayer that have appreciated in value. Consideration should be given to whether any of the appreciated assets should be sold (if their value has peaked), and thereby offset those gains with pre-existing losses.

Long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains before they offset short-term capital gains. Similarly, short-term capital losses offset short-term capital gains before they offset long-term capital gains. Keep in mind that taxpayers may use up to $3,000 of total capital losses in excess of total capital gains as a deduction against ordinary income in computing adjusted gross income or AGI. Individuals are subject to tax at a rate as high as 35% on short-term capital gains and ordinary income. But long-term capital gains are generally taxed at a maximum rate of 15%.

All of this means that having long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains should be avoided, since those losses will be more valuable if they are used to offset short-term capital gains or ordinary income. Avoiding this requires making sure that the long-term capital losses are not taken in the same year as the long-term capital gains. However, this is not just a tax issue; investment factors also need to be considered. It would not be wise to defer recognizing gain until the following year if there is too much risk that the property’s value will decline before it can be sold. Similarly, one wouldn't want to risk increasing a loss on property that is expected to continue declining in value by deferring its sale until the following year.

To the extent that taking long-term capital losses in a different year than long-term capital gains is consistent with good investment planning, a taxpayer should take steps to prevent those losses from offsetting those gains.

If there are no net capital losses so far for the year – If a taxpayer expects to realize such losses in the subsequent year well in excess of the $3,000 ceiling, consider shifting some of the sales and resulting excess losses into the current year. That way, the losses can offset current year gains, and up to $3,000 of any excess loss will become deductible against ordinary income in the subsequent year.

For the reasons outlined above, paper losses or gains on stocks may be worth recognizing this year in some situations. But if the stock is to be repurchased, it cannot be repurchased within a 61-day period (30 days before or 30 days after the date of sale) under the “wash sale” rules. If it is, the loss will not be recognized and will simply adjust the tax basis of the reacquired stock.

Careful handling of capital gains and losses can save substantial amounts of tax. Please contact this office to discuss year-end planning strategies that apply to your particular situation so as to maximize tax savings.