How to Use the Zero Percent Tax Rate on Capital Gains

Many can benefit from realizing gains in the right year.

money in earth
The zero percent capital gains rate presents a great opportunity. Mike Kemp / Getty Images

Each time I write about the zero percent capital gains tax rate, someone says “I didn’t know there was a zero percent tax rate on long-term capital gains.” Yes, there is, since 2008. The problem is, most people end up having capital gains that are taxed at zero percent by accident.

With planning, there are quite a few things you can do on purpose to realize tax-free earnings on your money. Harvesting capital gains is a process of intentionally selling an investment that will have a long-term capital gain in years where that gain will be not be taxed.

The gain is not taxed when it occurs in a year where you are in the zero percent capital gains tax bracket. Here’s how it works.

How the Zero Percent Rate Works

The zero percent tax rate on capital gains applies to people in the 15% marginal tax rate or below. In 2017, that applies to married tax filers with taxable income up to $75,900, and single tax filers with taxable income up to $37,950. 

Even if your taxable income is normally quite a bit higher, there are often many years where lower income tax years occur, and sometimes you can make a low-tax year occur on purpose in retirement by choosing which accounts to take withdrawals from each year.

Tax Opportunities

The most common tax planning opportunities occur if you are:

  • Temporarily unemployed.
  • A sales person whose income varies from year to year.
  • Are between the ages of 55 and 70 and may soon be transitioning into retirement or are already retired.

    Let’s say you’re married and this year your taxable income (which is calculated after subtracting out your itemized deductions or standard deduction) is going to be about $60,000. You now have room for more income before you hit the top of the 15% tax bracket; $15,900 of room to be exact.

    If you own stocks or mutual funds in a non-retirement account and some of them have unrealized long-term gains, you have a tax planning opportunity.

    You can exchange your investment for something similar (so your portfolio allocation and risk tolerance stay about the same), and that unrealized gain now becomes a realized gain. In this example you could have up to $15,900 of realized gains and pay no income tax on them.

    Recommended Homework

    There are a few things you want to check out before you start harvesting gains.

    1. Mutual funds distribute capital gains in the fall of each year. Some funds distribute their gains as late as mid-December. If you own tax-managed funds or index funds, the gains will likely be minimal, but funds that are not managed with taxes in mind can generate large gains. You need to know what this gain will be before you go intentionally realizing additional gains.
    2. Check your tax return to see if you have a capital loss that is being carried forward from a previous year. If you had past losses those carry forward indefinitely. Losses are first used to offset gains. If you have no gains, then $3,000 of a capital loss can be used to offset ordinary income. If you have capital losses that are being carried forward and you realize gains, your gains will first use up all your old losses. This is ok, but it may not be the best strategy for you.
    1. Make sure you have an accurate estimate of what your tax return will look like. Unless you are a finance person, I think it is best to work with a tax professional or financial advisor for these projections, but some enjoy running multiple scenarios through online tax preparation software to do their planning.

    Benefits of Harvesting Gains for Retirees

    Gain harvesting can be an effective way to get tax-free gains, but in order for it to work, you must build a habit of projecting taxes and looking for tax opportunities each and every fall. By doing this consistently, you can reduce your tax bill during your retirement years, which means more of your retirement income goes in your pocket.