What Is the Capital Gains Tax?

The Capital Gains Tax Explained

Image shows a woman sitting at three computer monitors showing various charts and data. Text reads: “What is a capital gains tax? The capital gains tax is a government fee on the profit made from selling certain types of assets, including stock investments or real estate property. A capital gain is calculated as the total sale price minus the original cost of an asset. Tax only comes due once you sell your investment.”

The Balance /  Mary McLain 

The capital gains tax is a federal fee you pay on the profit made from selling certain types of assets. These include stock investments or real estate property. A capital gain is calculated as the total sale price minus the original cost of an asset.

Even if you don't plan on selling any assets in the near future, there will be a time when you will decide to sell a property or investment. Understanding what capital gains are and when and how you pay capital gains tax and can help you make sound financial decisions when you decide to sell an asset.

Definitions and Examples of the Capital Gains Tax

The capital gains tax only becomes due once you sell your investment. For example, you won't owe tax while stock gains value inside your portfolio. However, once you sell your shares, the profit must be reported on your tax return. As a result, you pay a tax on your profit at the capital gains rate.

The federal government taxes all capital gains. Short-term capital gains or losses occur when you've owned an asset for a year or less. Long-term capital gains or losses occur if you sell an asset after owning it for longer than one year.

Short-term capital gains have a higher tax rate than long-term capital gains. This difference is deliberate to discourage short-term trading. Trading stocks and other assets frequently can increase market volatility and risk. It also costs more in transaction fees to individual investors.

A capital loss occurs when you sell an asset for less than the original price. Some capital losses can be used to offset capital gains on your tax return, which lower the taxes you pay.

How the Capital Gain Tax Works

There are two standard capital tax rates for long- and short-term investments:

  1. Short-term capital gains tax rate: All short-term capital gains are taxed at your regular income tax rate. From a tax perspective, it usually makes sense to hold onto investments for more than a year.
  2. Long-term capital gains tax rate: The tax rate paid on most capital gains depends on the income tax bracket. Those with taxable income of less than $80,801 (married filing jointly) or $40,401 (married filing separately, single) typically pay little or no capital gains tax.

Here are the long-term capital gains tax brackets by income for tax year 2021:

Capital Gains Tax Rate Taxable Income, Single Taxable Income, Married Filing Separately Taxable Income, Head of Household Taxable Income, Married Filing Jointly
0% Up to $40,400 Up to $40,400 Up to $54,100 Up to $80,800
15% $40,401 to $445,850 $40,401 to $250,800 $54,101 to $473,750 $80,801 to $501,600
20% $445,851 or more $250,801 or more $473,751 or more $501,601 or more

Long-term capital gains on collectibles, such as stamps, coins, and precious metals, are taxed at 28%.

Alternatives to the Capital Gains Tax

Taxpayers can declare capital losses on financial assets, such as mutual funds, stocks, or bonds. They can also declare losses on hard assets if they weren't for personal use. These include real estate, precious metals, or collectibles. Capital losses, either short- or long-term, can offset short- and long-term gains.

If you have long-term gains that exceed your long-term losses, you have a net capital gain. However, if you have a net long-term capital gain, but it's less than your net short-term capital loss, you can use the short-term loss to offset your long-term gain.

You can use net capital gain losses to offset other income, such as wages. But that's only up to an annual limit of $3,000, or $1,500 for those married filing separately. What happens if your total net capital loss exceeds the yearly limit on capital loss deductions? If you can't apply all of your losses in one tax year, you can carry the unused part forward to the next tax year.

What It Means to the Economy

A 2019 study from the Tax Policy Center found that 75% of capital gains are paid by people in the top 1% of income earners. Everyone else keeps their assets in tax-deferred accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs. This situation creates a tax benefit for the top 1%.

Those who live off of investment income never pay more than 20% in taxes, unless they take income from assets held for less than one year. This taxation applies even to hedge fund managers and others on Wall Street, who derive 100% of their income from their investments. In other words, these individuals pay a lower income tax rate than those in the 22% tax bracket ($40,126-$85,525 of taxable income for single filers).

This taxing loophole has two outcomes:

  1. It encourages investment in the stock market, real estate, and other assets, which generates business growth.
  2. It creates more income inequality. People who live off of investment income already fall into the wealthy category. They've had enough disposable income in their life to set aside for investments that generate a healthy return. In other words, they didn't have to use all their income to pay for food, shelter, and healthcare.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) put more people into the 20% long-term capital gains tax bracket. They fall into that section when the IRS adjusts the income tax brackets each year to compensate for inflation. But these brackets will rise more slowly than in the past. The Act switched to the chained consumer price index. Over time, that will move more people into higher tax brackets.

Key Takeaways

  • When you sell certain types of assets, such as stocks or an investment property, you will pay a capital gains tax on the profit.
  • You will pay short-term capital gains if you owned the asset for one year or less. Short-term capital gains are taxed at a higher rate.
  • You will pay long-term capital gains if you owned the asset for over a year. Long-term capital gains are taxed at a lower rate.
  • If you lose money on an asset, you have a capital loss. It can be used to offset a capital gain on your income tax.
  • The majority of people who pay capital gains taxes are in the top 1% of income earners.