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Dividends and Taxes: Dos and Don’ts

Dividend-paying stocks have enjoyed a renaissance during the past several years. Despite the high-profile blowups of many financial stocks, dividend payers generally outperformed non-dividend payers during the financial crisis. Further burnishing dividend payers’ appeal is the currently benign tax treatment of dividends: Those in the 25% tax bracket and above pay taxes at a 15% rate on qualified dividends, while those in the 10% and 15% tax brackets pay no taxes at all on such dividends. That’s a big attraction, but investors need to do their research before embracing dividend payers for their taxable accounts. Here are some dos and don’ts.

Do Understand the Difference between Qualified and Nonqualified Dividends: You often hear that the dividend tax rate is either 15% or 0%, depending on your tax bracket. But if it’s not the right kind of dividend, you could actually owe ordinary income tax on your dividends (as much as 35%, depending on your tax bracket). That’s because the Internal Revenue Service separates dividends into qualified and nonqualified categories. One big type of nonqualified dividends are those that REITs kick off; while their yields might be lush relative to the income you receive from other stocks, you’ll owe ordinary income tax on that income. Owing to that tax treatment, investors in the typical real estate fund have paid a tax-cost ratio of 1.9% per year during the past decade, far higher than any other equity category. (Foreign-stock dividends may not necessarily qualify for the low tax treatment, either.)

Do Watch Out for Income-Focused Funds: If you buy and hold individual stocks, you can do your homework and downplay nonqualified dividend payers. But if you own stock mutual funds focused on dividend payers, such as those with “Equity Income” or “Dividend” in their names, you won’t have the same opportunity to pick and choose. Unless a dividend-focused fund is explicitly tax managed, the manager’s only goal is to maximize income and total return. That means it’s highly possible that the fund will hold companies that kick off nonqualified dividends, and such a fund may even own some bonds, to boot. So before you park an equity-income fund in your taxable account, first spend some time looking under the hood.

Don’t Assume It Will Stay This Way: We’ve gotten spoiled with the low tax rate on dividends. But the current policy has only been around since 2003, and it’s set to revert to pre-2003 levels in 2013. That means that dividend income will again be taxed at investors’ ordinary income tax rates. If that happens, you might decide you want to get those dividend payers into a tax-sheltered wrapper like an IRA or 401(k) post-haste. After all, it’s better to let those dividends compound rather than letting the IRS take a big cut right off the top.

Don’t Hold Very High Dividend Payers in Taxable Accounts: Even if a company’s or fund’s dividends are qualified all the way, companies and funds that kick off very high levels of income are still usually best left in your tax-sheltered accounts. That’s because you’re going to receive that high income stream whether you need the money or not, and in turn, you’ll owe taxes on that dividend for the year in which you received it. By holding non-dividend payers in your taxable accounts, by contrast, you won’t be on the hook for taxes unless you take action and sell shares. Of course, you might decide that dividend payers’ fundamental attractions supersede the tax considerations, but all else equal, dividend payers are less tax-efficient than non-dividend payers, even in the current low-tax environment.

This is for illustrative purposes only and should not be viewed as investment advice. The opinions herein are those of Morningstar, Inc. and should not be viewed as providing investment, tax, or legal advice. Please consult with a tax and/or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

 
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