Capital Gains Tax Isn't Just for Rich People

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on January 27, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's tax returns have called attention to capital gains. As you probably now know, capital gains are usually taxed at a lower rate than other types of income -- but they're not just for the super-rich.

Anyone with a capital asset can claim a capital gain when that asset is later sold, according to the Internal Revenue Service. A "capital gain" is how much money you made by selling the asset. (However, if you lost money in the deal, and it's investment property, it's called a "capital loss.")

So what is considered a capital asset? And can you claim the sweet 15% capital-gains tax rate like Mitt Romney does?

The answer depends on many factors, and involves some arithmetic. Here's what the IRS says about capital gains and taxes:

  • Almost all of your property, held personally or as an investment, can be considered capital assets.
  • When a capital asset is sold, the difference between the sale price and your basis (usually the purchase price) is a capital gain or loss.
  • If you held the capital asset for more than a year, your gain or loss is considered "long-term." Otherwise, it's "short-term."
  • Subtract your long-term losses from your long-term gains -- that's your net long-term capital gain.
  • Add up your short-term capital losses, and any long-term capital losses carried over from last year. Subtract these losses from your net long-term capital gain to get your "net capital gain."

Net capital gains are taxed at different rates for different taxpayers. The maximum rate for most people is 15%, but for those with lower incomes it could be as low as zero. However, some types of net capital gain may be taxed at higher rates of 25% or 28%.

See how complicated it can get? That's why it may be wise to consult a tax attorney about your best options for reporting capital gains on your taxes, even if you're not as rich as Mitt Romney.

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