Investment Tax Rules Every Investor Should Know

By Anna Davies · March 29, 2021 · 7 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Investment Tax Rules Every Investor Should Know

Investing can feel like a steep learning curve. In addition to having a clear grasp of types of investment vehicles available and understanding the role investments play in overall financial strategy, it’s a good idea to understand how taxes may affect your investments. Knowing tax implications of various investment vehicles and investment decisions can help an investor tailor their strategy and end up with fewer headaches at tax time.

What Is Investment Income?

Tax requirements for investments can be complicated, and it can be helpful for investors to work with a professional to see how taxes might impact a return on their investment. Doing so might also help ensure that investors aren’t overlooking anything as they explore avenues for favorable tax treatments.

That said, it’s always helpful to enter into any discussion with some solid background information on when and how investments are taxed. Typically, investments are taxed at one or more of these three times:

When you sell an asset for a profit. This profit is called capital gains—the difference between what you bought an investment for and what you sold it for. Capital gains taxes are typically only triggered when you sell an asset; otherwise, any gain is an “unrealized gain” and is not taxed.
When you receive money from your investments. This may be in the form of dividends or interest.
When all profits from investments are considered under an umbrella. This view may trigger a tax called the Net Investment Income Tax (NIIT).

In the following sections, we delve deeper into each of these situations that can lead to taxes on investments.

Tax Rules for Different Investment Income Types

Capital Gains Taxes on Assets Sold

Capital gains are the profits an investor makes from the purchase price to the sale price of an asset. Capital gains taxes are triggered when an asset is sold (or in the case of qualified dividends, which is explained further in the next section). Any growth or loss before a sale is called an unrealized gain or loss, and is not taxed.

The opposite of a capital gain is a capital loss. This occurs when an investor sells an asset at a lower price than purchased. Why would an investor trigger a capital loss? That depends on the investor. Sometimes, an investor needs to sell an asset at a suboptimal time because they need the cash.

At other times, an investor may sell “losing” assets at the same time they sell assets that have gained as a way to minimize their overall tax bill, by using a strategy called tax-loss harvesting. This strategy allows investors to “balance” any gains by deliberately selling profits at a loss, which, according to IRS rules, can be carried over through subsequent tax years.

There are two types of capital gains, depending on how long you have held an asset:

•  Short-term capital gains. This is a tax on assets held less than a year, taxed at the investor’s ordinary income tax rate.
•  Long-term capital gains. This is a tax on assets held longer than a year, taxed at the capital-gains tax rate. This rate is lower than ordinary income tax. For 2021, as per the IRS , the long-term capital gains tax was $0 for individuals with taxable income less than $80,0000 and no more than 15% for most individuals (for those making more than $496,600, the rate jumps to 20%).

Dividend And Interest Taxes

Dividends are distributions that a corporation, S-corp, trust or other entity taxable as a corporation may pay to investors. Not all companies pay dividends, but those that do typically pay investors in cash, out of the corporation’s profits or earnings. In some cases, dividends are paid in stock or other assets.

Dividends that are part of tax-advantaged investment vehicles are not taxed. Generally, taxpayers will receive a form 1099-DIV from a corporation that paid dividends if they receive more than $10 in dividends over a tax year. All other dividends are either ordinary or qualified:

•  Ordinary dividends are taxed at the investor’s income tax rate.
•  Qualified dividends are taxed at the lower capital-gains rate.

In order for a dividend to be considered “qualified” and be taxed at the capital gains rate, an investor must have held the stock for more than 60 days in the 121-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date. (Additionally, said dividends must be paid by a U.S. corporation or qualified foreign corporation, and must be an ordinary dividend, as opposed to capital gains distributions or dividends from tax-exempt organizations.)

Both ordinary dividends and interest income on investments are taxed at the investors regular income rate. Interest may come from brokerage accounts, or assets such as mutual funds and bonds. There are exceptions to interest taxes based on type of asset. For example, municipal bonds may be exempt from taxes on interest if they come from the state in which you reside.

Total Investment Income and Net Investment Income Tax (NIIT)

Net investment income tax (NIIT) is a flat 3.8% surtax levied on investment income for taxpayers above a certain income threshold. The NIIT is also called the “Medicare tax” and, as per the IRS , applies to all investment income including, but not limited to: interest, dividends, capital gains, rental and royalty income, non-qualified annuities, and income from businesses involved in trading of financial instruments or commodities.

In 2021, NIIT applies to individuals with an adjusted gross income (AGI) over $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. For taxpayers over the threshold, NIIT is applied to the lesser of the amount the taxpayer’s AGI exceeds the threshold or their total net investment income.

For example, consider a couple filing jointly who makes $200,000 in wages and has a NIIT of $60,000 across all investments in a single tax year. This brings their AGI to $260,000—$10,000 over the AGI threshold. This would mean the taxpayer would owe tax on $10,000. To calculate the exact amount of tax, the couple would take 3.8% of $10,000, or $380.

Cases of Investment Tax Exemption

Certain types of investments may be exempt from tax implications if the money is used for certain purposes. These investment vehicles are called “tax-sheltered” vehicles and apply to certain types of investments that are earmarked for certain uses, such as retirement or education.

There are two types of tax-sheltered accounts:

•  Tax-deferred accounts. These are accounts in which money is contributed pre-tax and grows tax-free, but taxes are taken out when money is withdrawn. For example, a 401(k) retirement account grows tax-free until you withdraw money, at which point it is taxed.
•  Tax-exempt accounts. These are accounts—such as a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA, or a 529 plan—in which money can be taken out tax-free if the funds are taken out according to qualifications. For example, money in a Roth account is not taxed upon withdrawal in retirement.

Beyond investing in tax-sheltered accounts, investors may also choose to research or speak with a professional about tax-efficient investing strategies. These are ways to calibrate a portfolio that may help minimize tax hits, grow wealth, and ensure that key portfolio goals—such as ample savings for retirement or ensuring adequate liquidity —are met.

The Takeaway

Dividends, interest, and gains can add up, which is why it’s important for a taxpayer to be mindful of investment taxes not only at tax time, but throughout the year. Understanding the implications of sales and keeping capital gains taxes in mind when planning sales can help investors make tax-smart decisions.

Because there are so many different rules regarding taxes, some investors find it helpful to work with a tax pro to ensure they’re not overlooking anything in their portfolio. Tax law also varies by state, and a tax pro should be able to tailor strategy to a taxpayer’s home state to minimize liability.

With a SoFi Invest® online investing account, investors can choose to take full charge of their investments—whether stocks, crypto, individual retirement accounts, and more—or use automated investing for a more hands-off approach.

Find out how to get started with SoFi Invest.

SoFi Invest®
The information provided is not meant to provide investment or financial advice. Also, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s specific financial needs, goals, and risk profile. SoFi can’t guarantee future financial performance. Advisory services offered through SoFi Wealth, LLC. SoFi Securities, LLC, member FINRA / SIPC . SoFi Invest refers to the three investment and trading platforms operated by Social Finance, Inc. and its affiliates (described below). Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of the platforms below.
1) Automated Investing—The Automated Investing platform is owned by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC registered investment advisor (“Sofi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC, an affiliated SEC registered broker dealer and member FINRA/SIPC, (“Sofi Securities).
2) Active Investing—The Active Investing platform is owned by SoFi Securities LLC. Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
3) Cryptocurrency is offered by SoFi Digital Assets, LLC, a FinCEN registered Money Service Business.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above, including state licensure of Sofi Digital Assets, LLC, please visit Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform. Information related to lending products contained herein should not be construed as an offer or prequalification for any loan product offered by SoFi Bank, N.A.
Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
Crypto: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren’t endorsed or guaranteed by any government, are volatile, and involve a high degree of risk. Consumer protection and securities laws don’t regulate cryptocurrencies to the same degree as traditional brokerage and investment products. Research and knowledge are essential prerequisites before engaging with any cryptocurrency. US regulators, including FINRA , the SEC , and the CFPB , have issued public advisories concerning digital asset risk. Cryptocurrency purchases should not be made with funds drawn from financial products including student loans, personal loans, mortgage refinancing, savings, retirement funds or traditional investments. Limitations apply to trading certain crypto assets and may not be available to residents of all states.

All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender