Selling stocks or mutual funds has often created confusion for investors when tax time rolls around. The longer the investment has been held, the more difficult it can be to determine the true cost basis information.
When an investor has years, possibly even decades, of incremental purchases and dividend reinvestments it can mean sifting through hundreds of statements.
A new rule implemented by the IRS now requires brokerages to submit cost basis information to both the IRS and the taxpayer. While it is designed to minimized miscalculations and ensure the Federal Government gets what is owed to them, experts say it will also eventually make tax calculations simpler.
For the next few years however, dealing with a combination of “covered” and “uncovered” sales may continue the confusion.
Determining gains and losses
“Cost basis” is simply the original purchase price of an asset, often used to determine profit or loss for reporting or tax purposes. Taxpayers are required to report cost basis for stocks or mutual funds because it determines the tax implications of that loss or gain.
That’s critical because while cost basis on a profitable sale could note the tax one has to pay, cost basis on a losing sale could also help the taxpayer claim a tax-deductible loss.
Bob Phillips, Managing Principal at Spectrum Management Group, says finding cost basis for stock and mutual fund sales can often be very complex. This is especially true when the taxpayer has bought shares in the stock or fund at multiple prices over a long period of time.
“It can get very complex and most people don’t do a very good job of tracking those transactions. They don’t keep up with the documentation and it can be difficult to find,” says Phillips.
Inherited stocks, or stocks that have been held or purchased over the course of decades, can be especially problematic to gather the documentation. Phillips says due to all the complexities, many taxpayers inaccurately calculate and report their cost basis, resulting in overpaying or underpaying their taxes.
For example, an IRS National Research Program in 2005 found a whopping $11 billion in under-reported capital gain taxes.
Phillips says many may overpay taxes on stock or mutual fund sales because they fail to add dividend reinvestments back into their cost basis. For stocks or funds not held in a retirement account, taxes must be paid that year on any dividends, even when they are reinvested.
“When you factor in automatic dividend reinvestments you could have up to four transactions per year on each stock and it can be a lot for people to keep up with,” says Phillips.
Documenting “covered” and “uncovered” sales
Section 403 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 made cost basis reporting mandatory for all brokerages starting in 2011 for stocks and for mutual funds and dividend reinvestment plans on January 2, 2012.
Until last year, no brokerages were required to furnish any cost basis information to the IRS. The fact that they now have to provide it to the IRS and the taxpayer should eventually simplify tax reporting.
Brooks Mosley, a CPA with Security Ballew Wealth Management, says taxpayers will now receive a 1099-B form with complete cost basis information on sales. The problem is, the rule currently only covers stocks and mutual funds acquired after the 2011 and 2012 dates.
So, in the meantime, many sales will be left with shares that are both “covered” and “uncovered” by the rule. It could take years, if not decades, for all the uncovered portions of sales to be flushed out of the market.
Phillips says it could create great confusion for taxpayers who may have to fill out multiple 8949 forms with varying covered and uncovered sales.
Mosley says while calculating cost basis can be confusing enough, the mix of covered and uncovered sales is going to make it trickier. ”I think it is going to confuse a lot of people. In the short term, I still think people are going to [mess up] and report wrong cost basis information,” he says.
He recommends that taxpayers pay especially close attention over the next few years to determine the covered and uncovered portions of their stock and fund sales.
Anyone who sold stocks or mutual funds in 2012 that they have been holding for years shouldn’t expect much of a difference, since most of the sale will be uncovered.
“It will [temporarily] put a bigger burden on the taxpayer to deal with the covered and uncovered sales. I think in the short term, people are still going to report the wrong basis,” he says.
Easier in the long-term
While many experts agree the mix of covered and uncovered sales will create some confusion in the coming years, the rule should eventually make reporting easier in the long term.
Once uncovered sales are flushed out of the market, investors will need to do little more than use the cost basis information provided on the 1099-B statements from their brokerage. Just how long that will take depends on the age of the investments the individual holds.
“Over time you won’t have to worry about stuff getting lost or finding records. Years from now, you won’t have problems like you did when trying to find cost basis of your grandfather’s stock he bought in the 60s,” says Phillips.
Phillips says it will increase compliance for the IRS since in time they will know the cost-basis for all stock and mutual fund sales. It will also make tax reporting simpler in the future because taxpayers will no longer have to sift through years of documents and statements.
“I still suggest people hang onto their statements, not just to [track their performance] but to check 1099-B statements in the future since computers are not infallible,” says Phillips.
Craig Guillot is a business and personal finance writer from New Orleans. He covers insurance, investing, real estate, retirement and debt. His work has appeared in such publications and web sites as Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com, CNBC.com, Bankrate.com and Investor’s Business Daily. He is the author of “Stuff About Money: No BS Financial Advice for Regular People.“