How to Pay No Taxes on Your Dividends or Capital Gains

American Households Can Now Pay No Federal Taxes on Common Stock

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Due to past changes in the tax rules, dividend income and capital gains have become much more attractive as sources of passive income for investors who are in the lower- and middle-earning brackets. 

Coupled with other intelligent portfolio allocation strategies, like taking advantage of free employer-match money in your 401(k) at work and fully funding a Roth IRA, these dividend tax changes mean you can now effectively drop your tax bill by a meaningful amount while enjoying income that can show up as a check in the mail, a direct deposit into your bank or brokerage account, or a reinvestment back into the companies that paid them.

The tax benefits are potentially substantial, it's somewhat surprising more people aren't talking about acquiring dividend stocks and dividend growth stocks to augment existing index fund holdings. Refusing to consider this as a strategy could mean potentially leaving thousands of dollars in free money on the table.

Dividend Tax Rules: The Basics

In tax year 2018, individuals who make less than $38,600 in taxable income, and married couples who make less than $77,200 in taxable income, now pay 0 percent taxes on qualified dividends and long-term capital gains. You read that right: 0 percent.

This represents almost 4 out of 5 American households who can get away with avoiding dividend tax entirely at the federal level. State taxes may still apply, depending upon where you live, but even in states with higher-than-average income, the federal tax-free rate remains a huge benefit.

Adding a new dollar in dividend income is now more advantageous to you on an after-tax basis than earning an extra dollar of income from your labor, especially if you are self-employed and face higher effective taxes due to the double payment on the regressive payroll tax because you have to cover both the employer and employee portion.

Meanwhile, individuals earning taxable income of $38,601 to $425,800, and married couples earning a taxable income of $77,201 to $479,000, pay only 15 percent federal taxes on their dividend income.

Individuals earning more than $425,000 and married couples earning more than $479,000 will pay 20 percent in federal dividend taxes plus the 3.8 percent Obamacare dividend tax for a combined rate of 23.8 percent to the IRS (depending upon where you live, state dividend taxes may apply, too).

Keep More of Your Passive Income

If you are mathematically inclined, you may be seeing dollar signs as a result of already having worked out some of the ways to which you can use this favorable situation to your advantage. Individuals earning less than $38,601 and married couples earning less than $77,201 in taxable income could prioritize building up a long-term, diversified portfolio of directly-held individual dividend growth and high dividend yield stocks.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, wealthy families who have adult children can lower their estate taxes, take advantage of the annual gift tax exclusion, and keep more investment income in the family through a fairly simple technique. Affluent parents can give their grown kids highly appreciated shares of dividend-paying stocks, passing along the cost basis and unrealized gain so the deferred taxes aren't triggered.

At the same time, the adult children aren't as likely to be earning outsized incomes as the parents, especially if they're just starting their own careers, meaning that unless they fall under one of the handful of child tax rules, the dividend income generated from the very same shares of stock are now tax-free at the federal level. This can be huge, especially if combined with liquidity discounts in a family limited partnership (for more on that topic, read this article). The major downside from a tax perspective is the loss of the eventual stepped-up basis loophole.

A Taxation Example

An illustration might help. Imagine you live in New York and are in the top federal tax bracket. Any dividends you collect are going to be taxed at 23.8 percent on the federal level (20 percent for the base dividend tax and 3.8 percent for the Obamacare tax), plus be subject to a state tax of 8.8 percent and local tax of 3.9 percent as well. By the time all is said and done, you're going to give up 1/3rd of your dividend income to various tax authorities.

Let's say you have a son who is launching a startup business in Dallas. He's married. While he isn't yet making any money at the startup, his husband or wife pulls in $50,000 a year as a teacher. That's well beneath the $77,201 tax-free dividend exemption level.

As long as this situation persists, you and your spouse can gift your son and his spouse dividend stocks each year, knowing that the dividends won't be taxed at all on the federal or State level due to the lack of income tax in Texas. That means that almost 1/3rd of the dividends received on the shares you gave are now staying within your family instead of going to the government's pockets for politicians to spend. It also helps move money out of your estate, as previously mentioned, so that future appreciation on those shares won't be subject to the estate tax limits when you die.

Pay Nothing in Capital Gains Taxes

If you stick with the same scenario discussed above, an equally intelligent strategy involves having your son and his spouse sell the appreciated stocks you gifted since the capital gains in their bracket are tax-free, too. They can wait to get past the wash sale rule date and repurchase the investment.

In effect, this lets you offload the capital gains tax to your kid, have them trigger the tax, and let them keep the money that would have gone to the government. If the kid is fairly young, say between 25 and 35 years old, the tax savings can be thousands upon thousands of dollars, which they can then keep on their personal balance sheet to compound for 30, 40, 50+ years. That one simple move might end up adding a very significant amount of dollars in future wealth to your family tree.

Utilize this strategy for multiple children and grandchildren and it might be possible to save truly impressive amounts on your (and their) tax bill. It's one of those things that helps give some families an advantage over others; by transferring an asset from one pocket to another, and accelerating inheritances a bit earlier, you can let your heirs enjoy the fruits of your labor rather than members of Congress. It's a viable alternative to something like a charitable remainder trust, which can also provide major tax advantages.