Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.
By Sarah Max
February 16, 2015

Q: I have a substantial amount of tax-loss carry forwards, but all of my net worth is now in tax-deferred accounts, such as my 401(k). I am 68 years old and don’t expect any large capital gains to offset these losses. Is there any way to recover these losses before I die?

A: The silver lining of investment losses is that you can use them to offset future capital gains—and you can carry them forward indefinitely. In other words, if you lose $10,000 on a stock in a taxable account, you can sell other stocks at a $10,000 gain and not owe taxes, even if those gains come years down the road. (Remember that to claim any loss you need to have actually sold the dud investment, and of course you’ll need to fill out the proper IRS paperwork to get that loss on record.)

Unfortunately, as you noted, these losses aren’t as useful if most of your savings is in tax-sheltered retirement vehicles, which aren’t subject to capital gains taxes. “Anything you take out of a 401(k) or other tax-deferred vehicle is taxed as ordinary income,” says Barbara Steinmetz, a certified financial planner and enrolled agent in San Mateo, Calif.

Uncle Sam does offer some consolation. Each year, you can use up to $3,000 of your losses to offset your ordinary income, says Steinmetz. But you need to first use your losses against any capital gains that year.

Moreover, upon death, your spouse effectively inherits those losses. A spouse can then use those losses to offset capital gains or, if there are no gains or excess losses, up to $3,000 a year against ordinary income. Once your spouse passes away, however, those losses are gone.

If you sell your home and make more than $250,000 on the sale ($500,000 if you’re married) you can apply your carry-forward losses toward any gains above those exclusion limits, says Steinmetz.

Likewise, you could open a taxable brokerage account knowing that you’ve banked some losses toward future appreciation and harvest your winners from there. But whatever you do, don’t let the proverbial tax tail wag the dog. Better to forgo the write off than make bad investment choices.

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