Tax Issues

Specific share identification mutual fund redemption at Vanguard

Background

Many investors are aware that when they sell a mutual fund or stock with a gain, they have to pay capital gains taxes for it. On the other hand, if they sell with a loss, they can claim a tax loss on it, as long as the transaction does not run foul of the wash sale rule. Fairmark has an extensive section “Capital Gains and Losses 101” that covers this in detail.

Unless an investor is selling the entire holding, it is usually best to identify specifically which shares are being sold. However, the identification part is somewhat confusing. The following paragraph from Fairmark explains why this is so:

The traditional way to specify the shares you’re selling is in the form of an instruction to your broker:

Sell 50 shares XYZ from the lot purchased on March 12, 2005.

This makes it sound like the broker has to do something special — possibly locate those specific shares, or at least make a record of some kind indicating what shares you sold. Some brokers will tell you “we don’t offer that service.” But in reality the only thing the broker has to do, besides executing the sale transaction in the normal way, is send you a written confirmation that you specified shares from the lot purchased on March 12, 2005.

This post is a review of my experience with specific share identification mutual fund redemption with Vanguard.

The Process

Prior to the day of redemption, I created a list of the tax lots I wanted to sell. These are basically the tax lots which have the highest cost basis and which will give me the maximum capital gain loss which I can claim on my tax return next year.

I then created the following message (which is a variant of the message, as suggested by seugene, from reference [1])

Subject: Specific Identification Sale of Mutual Fund

Dear Vanguard,

This is to inform you that for the following trade(s) placed today in my taxable joint account, I want to use the specific share identification method for capital gains calculation.

(A) Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Admiral Fund VTSAX, redeeming XXX.YYY shares from the following lots:

1) MM/DD/YY XX.YYY shares
2) MM/DD/YY XX.YYY shares

I understand that I am responsible for tracking my cost basis.

Please acknowledge that you have received this message.

Thank you.

Dated MM/DD/YYYY.

On the day of the redemption, I sent the above message via a secure email to Vanguard and then placed the sale of the specified number of shares online as per usual.

A few days later, I received the following confirmation:

Dear indexfundfan:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding your desire to use the specific share identification method (as defined in the Internal Revenue Code) for purposes of determining your cost basis. I am responding on behalf of your Flagship representative, XXX.

We acknowledge receiving your specifications, identifying the particular shares purchased on several dates to be redeemed from your Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Admiral Fund in the account #XXX. To assist you in making an adequate identification of such shares, we are confirming your specifications as outlined below in accordance with federal regulation section 1.1012-1(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

You are redeeming XXX.YYY shares from the following lots purchased on the following dates:

1) MM/DD/YY XX.YYY shares
2) MM/DD/YY XX.YYY shares

In the event you were using a different method to determine cost basis (for example, average cost method), you may need written consent from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to change to the specific share identification method. Consult your tax adviser if you have any questions concerning tax reporting methods or for additional assistance.

Please be advised that Vanguard’s recordkeeping systems support the average cost basis method of basis determination, not the specific share identification method. Therefore, it is your responsibility to keep sufficient records to support your basis determination under the method you have chosen, including but not limited to tracking the cost and related gain or loss of shares [exchanged, redeemed] for purposes of reporting that information to the IRS.

Additionally, since you are using the specific share identification method for tax reporting, any average cost basis statement that you may receive from Vanguard for this fund and account should be disregarded.

I have forwarded a copy of this e-mail to your representative. If you have any further questions, you may contact your Flagship Representative at 1-800-XXX, extension XXX. If your representative is unavailable at the time of your call, the next available trained representative will be happy to assist you. If you prefer, you may ask to be transferred to his voice mail. He will promptly return your call.

Flagship’s business hours are Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time. You may also feel free to visit our website at www.vanguard.com, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Sincerely,

XXX
Registered Representative
Vanguard Flagship Services

I printed a copy of the above to PDF and save it together with the secure email I had sent out a few days earlier.

That’s it. I now have a written confirmation that the brokerage had received my instructions to redeem specific shares of my mutual fund.

PS. The Fairmark article linked above has a brief section discussing the “legality” of whether an email confirmation (versus a paper confirmation) is sufficient. For my personal records, I am inclined to think that the secure email is sufficient, but another person’s situation could be different.

Reference

[1] Boglehead forum discussion.

Tax season and free filing

It’s tax season again and I find myself shelling out another $20+ to get the tax software. Don’t you sometimes wonder why can’t the IRS provide a free and convenient filing facility for everyone, without adding on various limitations for free filing or asking the filer to use an outside vendor?

Here’s one article I read recently on the state of e-filing

We live in an age when everything is going electronic – credit-card bills, court filings, rent payments, even applications for Social Security benefits. We rent movies over the Internet and send e-mail from our cell phones.

Yet the federal government can’t seem to offer us an easy, online way to calculate and pay our income taxes.

The feds realize their position is somewhat ridiculous. Faced with a congressional mandate to cut processing costs by reducing the number of paper tax returns, the agency has worked with tax software providers to create Free File, which theoretically offers free federal online tax preparation and online filing to the 95 million taxpayers whose adjusted gross income didn’t exceed $54,000 in 2007.

I say “theoretically” because the IRS and the 19 participating companies in the Free File Alliance have structured the program to make it as difficult as possible to actually use it. Last year, just 3.9 million eligible taxpayers participated.

Free File is essentially a portal with links to special programs created by the 19 companies. But unless you already know about it, Free File is hard to find. It’s available only through the official IRS Web site, www.irs.gov. Participating companies can’t link to their own Free File offerings from their main sites. (To their credit, TurboTax and TaxACT offer free returns to a wide range of filers on their own sites.)

Why the crazy rules? Three years ago, some of the participating companies decided to offer free federal returns to everyone, without any income limits whatsoever. (Free File vendors typically make money from selling state returns and other extra services.) The literal free-for-all was great for taxpayers but costly to vendors. So they negotiated with the IRS to make sure such unbridled competition would never happen again

On a related note, I find it even more ridiculous that I have to pay additional to e-file using the tax software. You mean I have to pay additional money, so that an external vendor has all my sensitive information and the IRS has an easier time processing my return (as opposed to manual paper processing) and then take out cash from my bank faster?

Sorry, no thanks. I will rather send in my return through the good old USPS near the middle of April.

PS. I was made aware after preparing for this post that TaxAct appears to offer free federal filing for all. So it seems that I can file my federal taxes for free at TaxAct and file my CA state taxes for free at CalFile. The downside is that I would need to re-enter my information twice. As I have already bought the tax software, I might revisit this issue next year.

Tax harvesting from 529 plan?

If you started contributing to a 529 plan some time in 2007, the chances are that the plan is in the RED (with capital losses) due to the recent stock market conditions.

A thought came to my mind — since unqualified distributions from the 529 plan are taxable, is it possible to tax harvest from the 529 plan?

I asked this question on the Bogleheads forum, and here’s a reply from LH2004 (who had previously demonstrated to have very good knowledge on tax matters):

Yes. See “Losses on QTP Investments” in Publication 970. You’ll be subject to the 2% of AGI floor, though, so you’ll need to have really extreme losses, or a big account, or low AGI, or other miscellaneous itemized deductions to reach that floor.

Alternatively, under the IRS’s new theory regarding wash sales, you could take the position that a sale of an individual portfolio in the 529 plan at a loss, followed by a purchase of a substantially identical fund in your taxable account, is a wash sale, increasing your basis in the newly-purchased fund, which you could then immediately sell at a loss; that would be an aggressive position to take.

Taylor Larimore kindly found the link to the relevant section in Publication 970 — http://www.irs.gov/publications/p970/ch08.htm :

Losses on QTP Investments

If you have a loss on your investment in a QTP account, you may be able to take the loss on your income tax return. You can take the loss only when all amounts from that account have been distributed and the total distributions are less than your unrecovered basis. Your basis is the total amount of contributions to that QTP account. You claim the loss as a miscellaneous itemized deduction on Schedule A (Form 1040), line 23, subject to the 2%-of-adjusted-gross-income limit.

If you have distributions from more than one QTP account during a year, you must combine the information (amount of distribution, basis, etc.) from all such accounts in order to determine your taxable earnings for the year. By doing this, the loss from one QTP account reduces the distributed earnings (if any) from any other QTP accounts.

At this point, it doesn’t look like something I would do.