Capital Gains Tax Explained (What Is It & How Much It Is)

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As tax season is beginning, a common question from filers is, what is the capital gains tax? Well, to start, the IRS deems taxable income as one of two types: ordinary or capital gain. To help you determine where your tax situation falls, the income is considered ordinary and includes:

  • Salary or hourly wages
  • Interest income
  • Self-employment income (e.g., freelancing or otherwise running your own business)
  • Rental income

On the other hand, capital gains income result from the selling of certain personal items for more than you paid for them. Examples of transactions which can trigger capital gains include:

  • Stocks sales
  • Mutual fund sales
  • Home sales

There are two kinds of capital transactions: short-term and long-term. Short-term transactions occur if the sale happens a year or less after the purchase. Short-term capital gains are taxed as ordinary income. However, long-term capital gains, where the taxpayer owned the asset for more than one year, are taxed at capital gains tax rates.

At most times in our history including today, top ordinary income tax rates exceed top capital gains tax rates. Consequently, you’d prefer income from a capital gains transaction over the same event triggering ordinary income.

Calculating Capital Gains and Losses

To determine the extent of a capital gain or loss, you simply subtract your cost of the asset you sold from its sales price. If your cost is less than the sales price, you have a capital gain. Your long-term gain will be taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20% depending on your income. If you have a short-term gain it will be taxed as ordinary income using your marginal tax rate. If your cost exceeds your sales price, you have a capital loss. You can deduct up to $3,000 in capital losses from your income. If your capital losses are more than $3,000 you can carry them forward to the next tax year.

Don’t worry about knowing how to calculate capital gains if you sold personal property. TurboTax will ask you simple questions and do the calculations based on your entries. If you have questions, you can connect live via one-way video to a TurboTax Live CPA or Enrolled Agent to get your tax questions answered.  A TurboTax Live CPA or Enrolled Agent can even review, sign, and file your tax return.


5 responses to “Capital Gains Tax Explained (What Is It & How Much It Is)”

  1. im newly divorced and in the court room my ex husband asked for half my taxes (he hasnt worked in 8 years) and the judge said yes he gets half. neither of us had a lawyer so i filled out the final divorce decree and i didnt put anything in the final decree. the judge has signed off on the decree with this not being in it so do i still have to give him half my taxes?????

    • Every time I ask a question, instead of a response, I get computer jargon that amounts to a run around., My exact question has been copied by you and is before me now. What have I done wrong ?

    • Hi Page,
      This was an older blog post, but for 2011 the maximum capital gains rates are 0%, 15%, 25%, and 28%, which are still generally lower than the rates that apply to other income. These rates apply to net capital gain, however if your regular tax computation results in a lower tax rate, then the regular tax rate would apply.
      Please see IRS Pub
      Thank you,
      Lisa Greene-Lewis

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