As 2011 winds down, investors should consider several last-minute strategies to improve their bottom line tax liability. Many of these strategies follow traditional advice applicable to any year-end. Others, however, are unique to 2011, not only because of the continuing impact of the economy but also because of major tax changes that are threatening for 2013, which is just a little more than a year away.

Long and short term gains
Long-term stock gains and qualified cash dividends continue to be taxed at the favorable maximum rate of 15 percent in 2011 and again in 2012. For lower-income investors in the 10 and 15 percent income tax brackets, a zero rate applies to stock gains and dividend income. Long-term capital gains rates apply to stock (and other investments) held for more than one year. Qualified dividend rates apply for stock held more than 60 days of a prescribed period around the dividend’s record date. Short-term gains are taxed at ordinary income rates and apply to stock held for one year or less.

If your stock has declined in value, it may make sense to sell it and recognize the loss. Capital losses have to be netted against capital gains, but net capital losses can be deducted dollar-for-dollar against ordinary income, up to $3,000 a year ($1,500 for married individuals filing separately). Excess capital losses above $3,000 are carried over to the following year and can be deducted against another $3,000 of ordinary income (after netting with any capital gains in the succeeding year).

Wash sale rules
If you expect the market to improve, you may want to hold on to your stock, even if it has dropped in value. It may be tempting to sell the stock, to recognize the loss, and then repurchase the same stock;however, the tax code under its so-called wash sale rules will not let you take the loss if you purchase identical stock within 30 days before or after you sell your shares. Another option is to sell your shares, wait 31 days, and then repurchase the stock.

Stock traded in an over-the-counter market or on a regulated national securities exchange is generally treated as sold on the date the taxpayer enters into a binding contract to sell the stock. This is the trade date, in contrast to the settlement date, when deliveries of the stock certificate and payment are made (generally the fifth business day after the trade date). The trade date is also the end of the selling taxpayer’s holding period for purposes of determining long- or short-term gain.

For short sales, however, the IRS insists on following a rule with a slight twist. If the stock price falls and a gain will result, the gain is realized on the trade date, when the seller directs his or her broker to purchase shares. On the other hand, if the price rises and a loss will result, the loss is not realized until the stock is delivered on the settlement date.

In either case, remember that for 2011, December 31 falls on a Saturday, making December 30, 2011 the last day on which the public stock exchanges are open.

Long-term holding period
This year, year-end tax selling strategies should also be coordinated with year-end tax buying. In addition to the traditional attention given to the wash-sale rules on the repurchase of securities, investors should be aware that the rates on long-term capital gains quite possibility will be going up dramatically after 2012, when the Bush-era tax rates end.

In default of Congressional action, the maximum rate on net long-term capital gains will rise from 15 percent to 20 percent. Since long-term gain is available only on assets held for more than one year, investors should be aware that the gain on stock and other capital assets purchased after 2011 quite likely will be subject to a higher tax rate. Year-end 2011 should therefore present an opportunity to get your long-term investment strategies in order so that, if forced to sell at year-end 2012 before a 2013 rate increase, you will be able to take advantage of the lower long-term rates.

If you would like to further refine your year-end investment strategies, please do not hesitate to contact our office.