If you hold shares of a mutual fund in a taxable investment account (taxable meaning not held in an IRA or other “deferred” investment account), then you will receive distributions from this fund in the form of interest, dividends or capital gains. These distributions are likely automatically reinvested into more shares immediately after they are received. While this can help you keep your money productive, it can also create a number of tax consequences when these funds are not held in tax-deferred accounts.
Taxes on Reinvested Distributions
When these funds are held in a taxable account, you will pay taxes on the interest, dividends or capital gains in the year that you receive them, even if they are immediately reinvested back into the fund. This can come as a surprise to some taxpayers who think they shouldn’t owe any taxes since they never pulled the money out of the account.
When a fund that you hold shares in has declined significantly in value you may sell those shares to prevent any further decline in value as well as to realize a tax deduction for your losses. However, if the proceeds are automatically reinvested back into the fund you may cost yourself the tax deduction for those losses due to the IRS “wash sale” rule. This rule states that when you purchase “substantially identical” shares within 30 days before or after the loss sale, your deduction will be reduced by the amount of purchases made within the window. If you plan to sell shares of a fund to realize a loss, make sure the proceeds are not automatically reinvested in a similar fund within 30 days.
Records Nightmare from Long-Held Stock
When you sell shares of a fund you need to report the original purchase price in order to reduce the taxable gain on the sale. If you only held the shares for a few months or a few years, then this likely is not a cause for concern. The fund company should know exactly when you purchased the shares and how much you paid. However, if you purchased the shares many years or even decades ago, you could find yourself making countless phone calls and digging through old records to try and determine your basis in the shares. Worse, if you cannot find your original purchase price the IRS will set it at zero and you will owe capital gains taxes on the entire sale.
Reinvesting at the Top
You are likely to receive more distributions from a mutual fund after the fund has a profitable year. If your distributions are set to be reinvested automatically this can lead to you routinely buying more shares at their highest price and fewer at their lowest price. In these situations, it may be more advantageous to manually invest the distributions in other funds that are not at their peak price.
Automatically reinvesting your earnings from mutual funds is an efficient way to keep your money active in the market without requiring your constant supervision. However, it can also create some unforeseen tax consequences at the end of the year if those funds are not held in a tax deferred account such as an IRA. Being aware of these potential tax consequences and monitoring your investment account throughout the year can help you avoid surprises and headaches when you file your taxes at the end of the year.