A recent Tax Court decision and pending tax reform proposals have intersected in highlighting how stock sales can be timed for maximum tax advantage. The taxpayer in the recent case (Turan, TC Memo. 2017-141) failed to convince the Tax Court that he timely made an election with his broker to use the last-in-first-out (LIFO) method to set his cost-per-share cost basis for determining capital gains and losses on his stock trades on shares of the same company. As a result, he was required to calculate the capital gain or loss on his stock trades using the firm’s first-in-first-out (FIFO) “default” method, which, in his case, yielded a significant increase in tax liability for the year.
Timing stock trades to maximize the tax advantage of long- and short-term capital gains and losses has always made sense, particularly as a year-end planning technique. This year, tax reform may make such strategies considerably more lucrative. If tax rates are suddenly set lower, either retroactively for this year or, more probably, starting January 1, 2018, managing stock basis becomes more significant. As a result, investors should consider carefully whether they may be better off tax-wise to give their brokers specific instructions in certain cases not to use the default FIFO method when selling certain holdings of the same company purchased at different times.
General FIFO rule
If a taxpayer purchases identical shares of stock at different prices or on different dates and then sells only part of the stock, the basis and holding period of the shares sold are determined on a FIFO basis unless the specific shares sold are adequately identified. The date of acquisition for purposes of the FIFO rule is determined by reference to the holding period of the securities for capital gain or loss purposes, including any prior holding period that has been tacked on.
Comment. Securities in a margin or other account with a broker are considered sold in the order in which they were purchased, not the order in which they were placed in the account. The FIFO rule is applied by allocating the earliest lots acquired to the securities sold rather than to the securities removed from the brokerage account but still owned.
When the securities to be sold are specifically identifiable, FIFO does not apply for purposes of allocating basis. The identity of securities sold or otherwise transferred generally is determined by the certificates actually delivered to the transferee.
Planning Tip: Thus, taxpayers who have records showing the cost and holding period of securities represented by separate certificates can control the amount of gain or loss realized by selecting the certificates to be transferred.
A standing order or instruction to a broker is treated as adequate identification. The instructions need not be in writing. Sufficient instruction to a broker or other agent of the particular securities to be sold or transferred does not require designation by certificate number; any designation that specifically identifies the securities to be transferred is adequate. Orders to sell the highest priced shares, shares with the highest cost basis, or the shares purchased at a certain price or on a specific date have been ruled acceptable.
A broker is required to report the customer’s basis in securities sold, classifying the gain as short or long term. Identification of the securities is made at the time of sale, transfer, delivery, or distribution. Clarifying instructions before the sale takes place, or immediately thereafter, is important since a broker is obligated to report to the IRS on Form 1099-B. Once the report is sent to the IRS, changing basis is more likely to raise a red flag with the IRS.
Please contact this office if you need to discuss a strategy of tax selling that is more specific to your portfolio and Congress’s plans for tax reform.