Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 13, 2019

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A capital gains tax is essentially a tax on a profit made from the sale of a capital asset, and is assessed depending on the nature of the asset sold. For example, if you sell a rental house at a substantial profit, the proceeds would be subject to a capital gains tax. Capital gains taxes do not cover the general sale of inventory, so if you operate a small business out of your home the proceeds on the sale of your product would not be subject to a capital gains tax.

Long-Term and Short-Term Capital Gains Taxes

Once you determine that the item you sold is an asset subject to a capital gains tax, the actual implementation of that tax depends on the nature of your gain from the sale. The IRS has two main categories of capital gains: short-term and long-term.

“Short-term capital gains” are assets that have been held and sold for a period of less than one year. Historically and currently, they receive less favorable tax treatment than long-term capital gains. In 1997, gains from capital assets held 12 but less than 18 months were originally taxed at a maximum rate of 28%. In 1998, Congress lowered the holding period for the 20% rate to just 12 months. Despite this change in 1998, short-term capital gains are still taxed at the same rate as ordinary income.

“Long-term capital gains” are taxed at more favorable rates. The special treatment for long-term capital gains was designed to encourage people to make greater investments in their communities. For federal tax purposes, long-term gains paid on the net amount are taxed at a rate of 0%, 15% or 20%, based on the taxpayer’s taxable income level. For 2018, single individuals earning more than $38,601–$425,800 are taxed at 15% (the corresponding amount for married filers is $77,201–$479,000). The 20% rate applies to taxpayers if their income threshold is above the 15% limit. No tax is applied for single filers whose income falls below $38,600 ($77,200 for married filers). 

Moreover, high-income taxpayers are also subject to a 3.8% surtax on short-and long-term capital gains over specified income thresholds to help pay for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., ObamaCare).

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Getting Help with Capital Gains Tax Issues

How your capital gain is classified will have the most influence on how you are taxed for capital gains. If you anticipate a large capital gain, you may want to consult with an attorney who specializes in tax law to review options for reducing your capital gain tax. If the sale is related to a gift you eventually plan to leave to an heir or a charity, you may also want to consult with an estate planning attorney to review strategies for disposing or allocating gifts that reduce your tax liability. The most important thing to remember is to ask for help if you don’t fully understand the law, since failure to pay capital gain taxes, as with any other tax obligation, can potentially result in audits, interest penalties, and charges of tax evasion. An attorney that specializes in tax law is worth the investment to avoid future issues with the IRS.