Clock starts ticking on moves to make before tax deadline

With the stock market up 25 percent this year and some mutual funds up 30 percent or more, some investors are getting itchy to sell winners and make sure they pocket the full benefit before a possible downturn.

Whittling away some overexposure to any asset can make sense. But be intentional. Selling stocks, bonds, mutual funds or other assets can carry tax consequences.

This is the time of year to be aware of that possibility, so that if you do something that brings on the tax man, you can do something else to hold him at bay.

Though that applies to anyone with investments, higher earners need to be particularly tuned in this year because their possible tax liabilities have risen, said Ted Sarenski, a CPA in Syracuse, N.Y. If you are in the highest tax bracket, you will be subject to a 20 percent capital gains tax. In addition, there's a 3.8 percent Medicare tax that individuals will face when their adjusted gross income hits $200,000. For couples, it's $250,000.

Among the tax considerations to note:

Where are your investments? If all of your investments are in an individual retirement account, Roth IRA, 401(k) or other retirement fund, you don't have to worry about tax consequences. The beauty of these accounts is that taxes don't apply to the money invested within these accounts.

But if you do your investing outside one of these tax-protected accounts, you have a taxable account. With a taxable account, you must pay attention to selling and the capital gains that selling can set off.

Do you have mutual funds in a taxable account? If you do have a mutual fund, you may get an unpleasant surprise around this time of year in a taxable account. Even if you haven't sold any of the fund shares, you might be subject to what's called a "distribution." Why? Because your fund manager has been buying and selling stocks, bonds or other securities within your fund all year long, and if the gains outnumber losses, you have the responsibility to pay the taxes.

There's a point in the year when the distribution applies. So if you sell a fund before the distribution date, you avoid that cost. But if you buy a fund this time of year, be careful. If the distribution is coming before year's end, you will owe taxes on it, even if you are a newcomer to the fund. To protect yourself, call the fund company and make sure you know the precise date when the distribution applies before buying or selling.

Hunt down your losers. If you have sold an investment this year and made money on it, you will owe capital gains taxes.

But there is a way to get rid of all or part of that obligation. If you can sell another investment that has lost money, that loss can be used to offset the gain you had on another investment.

Furthermore, if you don't have gains to offset, you can sell investments at a loss and use those losses to lower your adjusted gross income. You can do this for up to $3,000 a year. And if your losses exceed that amount, you can carry the loss into future years.

Spotting winners and losers. Many bond funds have been losers this year, so they are a potential good choice to sell. Just remember, it's not good enough to sell a fund that's lost money this year. You need one that has lost money since you bought it. Obvious losers this year, according to Lipper, are emerging-market debt funds, with an average loss of 6.5 percent, and emerging-market stock funds, with a 1.5 percent average loss.

Also consider U.S. Treasury bond funds, with an average loss of 5.4 percent, and Treasury Inflation Protected funds, with an average loss of 6 percent. You won't find losers among U.S. stock funds, but precious metal funds are big losers. The average precious metal mining stock fund is down 43 percent.

Lighten up on winners. If you want to lighten up on a huge winner like a small cap fund without bringing about any capital gains tax, consider giving shares to a charity. The charity will get the full value and will be able to sell shares you provide, without either you or the charity owing tax.

Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send her email at

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