How to pay taxes on investment income

Creating a strategy ahead of time can help investors avoid a huge federal tax bill in April.

Investors who sold profitable stocks in 2018 are facing a potential tax bill unless other investments which lost value were also divested. The tax on an individual's investment income can be challenging to determine. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, known as TCJA, could add another burden as it impacted the tax liabilities for many individuals with their 2018 tax year returns.

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States where Americans pay the highest in state income taxes
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States where Americans pay the highest in state income taxes

California

State income tax: 1% to 13.3% 

Maine

State income tax: 5.8% to 10.15%

Oregon

State income tax: 5% to 9.9%

Minnesota

State income tax: 5.35% to 9.85%

Iowa

State income tax: 0.36% to 8.98%

New Jersey

State income tax: 1.4% to 8.97%

Vermont

State income tax: 3.55% to 8.95%

Washington, DC

State income tax: 4% to 8.95%

New York

State income tax: 4% to 8.82%

Hawaii

State income tax: 1.4% to 8.25%

Wisconsin

State income tax: 4% to 7.65%

Idaho

State income tax: 1.6% to 7.4%

South Carolina

State income tax: 0% to 7%

Connecticut

State income tax: 3% to 6.99%

Arkansas

State income tax: 0.9% to 6.9%

Montana

State income tax: 1% to 6.9%

Nebraska

State income tax: 2.46% to 6.84%

Delaware

State income tax: 2.2% to 6.6%

West Virginia

State income tax: 3% to 6.5%

Georgia

State income tax: 1% to 6%

Kentucky

State income tax: 2% to 6%

Louisiana

State income tax: 2% to 6%

Missouri

State income tax: 1.5% to 6%

Rhode Island

State income tax: 3.75% to 5.99%

Maryland

State income tax: 2% to 5.75%

North Carolina

State income tax: 5.75%

Virginia

State income tax: 2% to 5.75%

Oklahoma

State income tax: 0.5% to 5.25%

Massachusetts

State income tax: 5.1%

Alabama

State income tax: 2% to 5%

Mississippi

State income tax: 3% to 5%

Utah

State income tax: 5%

Ohio

State income tax: 0.495% to 4.997%

New Mexico

State income tax: 1.7% to 4.9%

Colorado

State income tax: 4.63%

Kansas

State income tax: 2.7% to 4.6%

Arizona

State income tax: 2.59% to 4.54%

Michigan

State income tax: 4.25%

Illinois

State income tax: 3.75%

Indiana

State income tax: 3.3%

Pennsylvania

State income tax: 3.07%

North Dakota

State income tax: 1.1% to 2.9%

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Here is a rundown on paying taxes on investment income:

  • Know that withdrawals from tax-deferred accounts can be taxable.
  • Be aware of capital gains taxes.
  • Understand federal tax consequences.

Tax-Deferred Accounts

The earnings in tax-deferred accounts, such as a 401(k)s, an individual retirement accounts, known as an IRAs, and health savings accounts, or HSAs, grow tax free until withdrawals are made.

"When you take money out, you pay ordinary income tax on the amount of money you withdraw from the account," says David Blain, CEO of New Bern, North Carolina-based BlueSky Wealth Advisors. "You don't have to take any out until you are 70.5 years of age."

A few examples of tax-exempt income are Roth IRA distributions, municipal bond interest and return of capital distributions from master limited partnerships, says Michael Landsberg, a certified public account and director at Homrich Berg Wealth Management in Atlanta. "Interest earned from U.S. Treasury securities are generally exempt at the state level, but fully taxable at the federal level."

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Average tax refund in every U.S. state
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Average tax refund in every U.S. state

Texas

Average refund: $3,206

Number of refunds: 10,087,693

Total income tax refunded: $32.3 billion

Louisiana

Average refund: $3,115

Number of refunds: 1,611,412

Total income tax refunded: $5 billion

Connecticut

Average refund: $3,099

Number of refunds: 1,396,609

Total income tax refunded: $4.3 billion

Oklahoma

Average refund: $3,098

Number of refunds: 1,300,577

Total income tax refunded: $4 billion

New York

Average refund: $3,059

Number of refunds: 7,712,210

Total income tax refunded: $23.6 billion

New Jersey

Average refund: $3,013

Number of refunds: 3,479,321

Total income tax refunded: $10.5 billion

Wyoming

Average refund: $2,989

Number of refunds: 214,649

Total income tax refunded: $641.6 million

North Dakota 

Average refund: $2,983

Number of refunds: 277,422

Total income tax refunded: $827.4 million

Florida

Average refund: $2,933

Number of refunds: 7,854,538

Total income tax refunded: $23 billion

Mississippi

Average refund: $2,922

Number of refunds: 1,018,429

Total income tax refunded: $2.97 billion

California

Average refund: $2,911

Number of refunds: 13,594,703

Total income tax refunded: $39.5 billion

Washington D.C.

Average refund: $2,900

Number of refunds: 277,399

Total income tax refunded: $804.5 million

Illinois

Average refund: $2,900

Number of refunds: 4,973,653

Total income tax refunded: $14.4 billion

Maryland

Average refund: $2,861

Number of refunds: 2,329,288

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Massachusetts

Average refund: $2,850

Number of refunds: 2,704,250

Total income tax refunded: $7.7 billion

Alaska

Average refund: $2,843

Number of refunds: 276,887

Total income tax refunded: $787 million

Nevada

Average refund: $2,830

Number of refunds: 1,111,952

Total income tax refunded: $3 billion

Georgia

Average refund: $2,832

Number of refunds: 3,606,774

Total income tax refunded: $10.2 billion

Alabama

Average refund: $2,802

Number of refunds: 1,650,125

Total income tax refunded: $4.6 billion

Virginia

Average refund: $2,771

Number of refunds: 3,129,030

Total income tax refunded: $8.7 billion

Arkansas

Average refund: $2,759

Number of refunds: 989,288

Total income tax refunded: $2.7 billion

Tennessee

Average refund: $2,726

Number of refunds: 2,465,816

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Utah

Average refund: $2,681

Number of refunds: 1,033,141

Total income tax refunded: $2.8 billion

Washington

Average refund: $2,681

Number of refunds: 2,749,362

Total income tax refunded: $7.4 billion

Arizona

Average refund: $2,672

Number of refunds: 2,244,925

Total income tax refunded: $6 billion

Kansas

Average refund: $2,665

Number of refunds: 1,044,275

Total income tax refunded: $2.8 billion

New Mexico 

Average refund: $2,657

Number of refunds: 724,549

Total income tax refunded: $1.9 billion

South Dakota

Average refund: $2,651

Number of refunds: 321,372

Total income tax refunded: $852 million

West Virginia

Average refund: $2,649

Number of refunds: 649,049

Total income tax refunded: $1.7 billion

Kentucky

Average refund: $2,648

Number of refunds: 1,590,274

Total income tax refunded: $4.2 billion

Delaware

Average refund: $2,648

Number of refunds: 365,749

Total income tax refunded: $968.4 million

Rhode Island

Average refund: $2,643

Number of refunds: 436,490

Total income tax refunded: $1.1 billion

Pennsylvania

Average refund: $2,643

Number of refunds: 5,071,264

Total income tax refunded: $13.4 billion

Colorado

Average refund: $2,636

Number of refunds: 2,014,233

Total income tax refunded: $5.3 billion

North Carolina

Average refund: $2,629

Number of refunds: 3,580,471

Total income tax refunded: $9.4 billion

Nebraska

Average refund: $2,615

Number of refunds: 711,103

Total income tax refunded: $1.8 billion

Indiana

Average refund: $2,612

Number of refunds: 2,577,994

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Iowa

Average refund: $2,602

Number of refunds: 1,141,151

Total income tax refunded: $3 billion

New Hampshire

Average refund: $2,602

Number of refunds: 558,359

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Missouri

Average refund: $2,601

Number of refunds: 2,220,029

Total income tax refunded: $5.7 billion

South Carolina

Average refund: $2,569

Number of refunds: 1,719,299

Total income tax refunded: $4.4 billion

Hawaii

Average refund: $2,564

Number of refunds: 535,763

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Michigan

Average refund: $2,560

Number of refunds: 3,776,668

Total income tax refunded: $9.7 billion

Ohio

Average refund: $2,517

Number of refunds: 4,570,589

Total income tax refunded: $11.5 billion

Minnesota

Average refund: $2,516

Number of refunds: 2,112,212

Total income tax refunded: $5.3 billion

Idaho

Average refund: $2,457

Number of refunds: 561,133

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Wisconsin

Average refund: $2,436

Number of refunds: 2,236,886

Total income tax refunded: $5.4 billion

Montana

Average refund: $2,401

Number of refunds: 372,817

Total income tax refunded: $895 million

Oregon

Average refund: $2,398

Number of refunds: 1,431,924

Total income tax refunded: $3.4 billion

Vermont

Average refund: $2,392

Number of refunds: 254,192

Total income tax refunded: $608 million

Maine

Average refund: $2,336

Number of refunds: 509,896

Total income tax refunded: $1.2 billion

Average tax refund by state
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Capital Gains

A long-term capital gain is when an investment, such as a stock or exchange-traded fund, is owned for more than a year and a profit is earned, says Mike Loewengart, chief investment officer at E-Trade Financial, a New York-based brokerage company.

"Keep in mind how long you've owned the security and the amount in which you are selling it at since that will have an effect on the taxes you're required to pay," he says. "If you are selling investments at a loss, you can always offset your capital gains with losses to lower your tax bill in a move called tax-loss harvesting."

For capital losses, tax-loss harvesting is a legal strategy to sell a stock that has experienced a loss in order to offset taxes on both capital gains and income.

Holding an investment like a stock for less than a year is a short-term capital gain and considered ordinary income, says John Blake, a CPA and a partner Klatzkin & Company in New Jersey.

The interest generated from certificates of deposit, money market funds and bonds are considered ordinary income. The ordinary income tax rate can run as high as 37 percent.

Investors who sold their stocks last year at a profit are facing what could be a large tax bill if quarterly payments were not made. An individual taxpayer can deduct up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of capital gains against ordinary income each year. The remainder is carried forward to offset next year's gains.

Depending on your overall income tax bracket, stock sales are taxed at a rate of either zero, 15, 20 or 23.8 percent, Blain says. For the federal capital gains tax rate, it depends on an investor's income bracket and all income, such as from a salary, a stock sale or rental property.

"Don't forget state taxes, since each state has its own tax laws. Some have capital gains tax and some tax it as ordinary income," he says.

Some stocks make distributions through dividends and investors who sold those equities will pay tax on the dividend income received while they had ownership.

"Take your sales price minus your basis which is the original purchase price and the resulting gain is what is counted for income for tax purposes," he adds.

Investors calculating how much money they might need to save to pay taxes might run into some unknowns.

"Depending on your income bracket, you could pay anywhere from 0 to 23.8 percent on capital gains," Blain says. "Interest income is taxed at your ordinary income tax bracket ranging from 12 percent up to 37 percent federal tax."

Federal Tax Consequences

It's good practice to set aside some money each month if you frequently buy and sell stocks, so you can avoid some of the sticker shock from the federal tax consequences.

"Most people are not great savers," says Steve Wittenberg, a director of legacy planning at SEI Private Wealth Management. "It takes discipline to set aside money on a consistent basis for any purpose, especially taxes. The tax bill can become daunting when it comes to investing and making significant nonwage income."

Investors can adopt a few techniques to prepare and estimate how much to attempt to save. Some use the prior year's tax return as a guide, especially if the investment income is expected to be consistent, he says.

"If your tax situation is more complex and particularly inconsistent, it is highly recommended that a tax preparer make one or more tax projections to calculate the amount of tax that may be due," Wittenberg says.

Many investors need to file quarterly payments to pay their taxes on time and avoid underpayment penalties, he says.

Experts say if the amount due is less than $10,000, a taxpayer should file IRS Form 9465 or apply online for an installment agreement.

"This is a fairly easy process: Take the balance due, multiply by 1.13 (for repayment with estimated interest) and divide by 36," says Valrie Chambers, an associate professor of accounting at Stetson University in Florida. "Sign up to make this payment every month and acceptance of the taxpayer's request is virtually guaranteed."

The IRS will generally offer an installment agreement to a taxpayer to pay taxes over time, says Eric Bronnenkant, head of tax at Betterment for Business in New York. "However, there will be interest assessed over the period of the installment agreement and possible additional fees. The other options include paying via credit card, which typically has a higher interest rate."

Ultimately, the driving force on investment decisions should be the stock, and not the tax, Blain says. "I've seen people refuse to sell something because they didn't want to pay the tax."

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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