Taxation of Ordinary and Qualified Dividends

Ordinary dividends are distributions of money, stock, or other property to holders of an ownership interest in the distributor. The most common issuers of dividends are corporations and mutual funds, but the issuer can also be a partnership, estate, or trust.

Dividends are reported to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and to the receivers of the dividends on Form 1099-DIV, Dividends and Distributions. Some distributions that are called dividends are actually considered interest, such as the distributions received from building and loan associations, cooperative banks, savings and loan associations, credit unions, and mutual savings banks. These distributions are reported on Form 1099-INT, Interest Income. Interest in the form of an original issue discount, such as original issue bonds sold for less than par value, is reported on Form 1099-OID, Original Issue Discount.

Other distributions or portions thereof, often called dividends, are actually the return of invested capital, which is nontaxable, or may consist of capital gains. Distribution from life insurance policies (not modified endowment contracts) are treated as a nontaxable return of premium, but distributions exceeding the total premiums paid are taxable.

If dividends are reinvested in more shares of the company instead of receiving cash, it is still taxable. If the company has a dividend reinvestment program that allows the shareholder to reinvest the dividends by buying additional shares at discounted prices, then the difference between the fair market value of the shares minus the discounted prices is taxable as a dividend, in addition to the dividends used to purchase the discounted stock.

Ordinary and Qualified Dividends

Ordinary dividends are considered ordinary income, not capital gains, and are taxed as such. However, qualified dividends are taxed at the same marginal rate as net long-term capital gains: 0%, 15%, and 20%. The dividends of each type are reported separately on Form 1099-DIV, Dividends and Distributions. The 0% rate applies to lower income taxpayers where the top marginal tax rate on ordinary income is less than 25%; otherwise the 15% rate applies to all brackets except for the top tax bracket, where the marginal tax rate of 20% applies. Starting in 2018, under the new tax package passed by the Republicans at the end of 2017, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the 0% rate will apply to the new 10% or 12% brackets (2018 income less than $38,700 for single and head of household, and $77,400 for married filing jointly), while the 15% rate will apply to all other brackets below the new 37% top bracket (2018: $600,000 for married filing jointly, $500,000 for everyone else), and the top bracket will still be subject to the 20% rate as under the old law. Additionally, the 3.8% Medicare surtax will apply to all those individuals earning more than the threshold amounts (single and head of household: $200,000; married filing jointly: $250,000).

Qualified dividends must satisfy the following requirements:

Holding Period. To receive qualified dividends, the stock must be held, unhedged, for a 121-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date until 60 days afterward.

  • The holding period is shortened by the number of days the holder hedged the position to reduce the risk for loss, such as selling a put on the stock or selling the stock short.
  • If the security is preferred stock and the dividend period exceeds 366 days, then the applicable unhedged holding period is 181 days that begins 90 days before the ex-dividend date to 90 days afterward.
    • Most preferred stocks pay dividends at least annually, usually quarterly. So, if the period is less than 367 days, which is usually the case, then the 121-day rule applies.
Timeline showing the required holding periods to earn qualified dividends for common and preferred stock.

If the dividend is a qualified dividend, then it will be reported as such on Form 1099-DIV.

If the dividend comes from a mutual fund or exchange traded fund, then both the fund and the shareholder must both satisfy the holding period requirement. However, some funds may list the dividend as qualified if they satisfy the holding period requirement, even if the shareholder does not satisfy the requirement. In this case, the shareholder must treat the income as ordinary income.

There are some dividends that are disqualified by IRS rules, including:

Some companies and most mutual funds have dividend reinvestment plans that allow the shareholder to reinvest the dividend by buying more shares of the company or fund. Although the dividends are reinvested, they must still be reported as income. If the reinvestment plan also allows the shareholder to buy more stock at less than fair market value, then the difference between the fair market value of the stock and the purchase price must also be reported as income.

Other Distributions

Capital gain distributions received from a mutual fund or other regulated investment company, or a real estate investment trust (REIT) should be reported as long-term capital gains regardless of how long the shareholder held the shares. Sometimes these distributions are not paid to the shareholder, but are retained by the company to reinvest. However, these capital gains still have to be reported by the shareholder even though they were not received. The shareholder will be notified by a Form 2439, Notice to Shareholder of Undistributed Long-Term Capital Gains.

A non-dividend distribution is a return of invested capital, which is reported on Form 1099-DIV. A non-dividend distribution reduces the tax basis of the stock; thus, taxes are not paid until the stock is sold. The tax basis of the earliest purchased stock is reduced first, until the basis of all stock reaches zero. Any additional nondividend distributions must be reported as a capital gain.

Example: A Nondividend Distribution Reduces the Tax Basis for the Stock Distributed

Liquidating distributions, which are sometimes called liquidating dividends, or a return of capital, results from the partial or complete liquidation of the corporation. Liquidating distributions reduce the tax basis of the stock. If the distribution results in the redemption or cancellation of the stock, then the taxpayer may have a capital loss.

Like stock splits, stock dividends and stock rights are generally not taxable, since they are just increasing the number of outstanding shares of stock, which decreases the value of each individual stock accordingly. However, stock dividends and rights may be taxable if:

Constructive distributions, such as preferred stock redeemable at a premium to the issue price or where the conversion ratio was increased, are also taxable.

Dividends from stripped preferred stock are treated as ordinary income.

Because many stockholders will not own enough shares to receive a full share of stock in a dividend or rights distribution, the company will sometimes sell the shares and divide the proceeds among the stockholders, which is treated as a stock redemption by the corporation, resulting in a taxable distribution equal to the amount of cash received by the stockholder minus the basis of the fractional share sold. The capital gain or loss is reported on Form 8949, Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets and Schedule D, Capital Gains and Losses.

Some corporations issue so-called script dividends, based on a script certificate that entitles the stockholder to a fractional share of the corporation. Script dividends are generally not taxable unless the corporation sells it and gives the stockholder the proceeds. The income will be equal to the income received minus the basis allocated to the certificate. If the certificate is redeemable for cash, then its fair market value is taxable income as of the date it is received.

Dividends received as property — sometimes called dividend in kind — are taxable on the fair market value of the property.

Any corporate benefit conferred on shareholders, usually done by a closely held corporation, are treated as a constructive dividend, which is taxable at its fair market value.

Some dividends are not taxable, including:

Nominee Dividend Distributions

If the taxpayer serves as a nominee for a dividend distribution, i.e., receiving the dividend that belongs to someone else, such as for stock held in a joint account, and the other person is not the nominee's spouse, then the nominee recipient must send a separate Form 1099-DIV to the beneficial owner of the dividend no later than January 31, so that the owner can report the dividend on his own tax return. The nominee must file Form 1096, Annual Summary and Transmittal of U.S. Information Returns with the IRS by the end of February, or by the end of March, if filing electronically. On the nominee's tax return, the nominee portion of the dividends is subtracted from the total dividends on Schedule B, Interest and Ordinary Dividends, yielding the taxable portion to be reported on Form 1040.

Reporting Dividend Income

Dividends of $1,500 or less are reported on Form 1040. Dividends exceeding $1,500 or a nominee receiving any amount of dividends that actually belong to someone else must file Schedule B, Interest and Ordinary Dividends and attach it to Form 1040. Dividends are reported on Form 1099-DIV, although some dividends that are actually interest will be reported on Form 1099-INT.

If you have qualified dividends, then you may have to use the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Tax Worksheet to figure the tax. Form 1099-DIV reports all dividends and states how much of that are qualified dividends. If you have qualified dividends, then your tax will be lower than it would otherwise be for the amount of income. These are the basic steps to calculate taxable income with qualified dividends, using the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Tax Worksheet:

  1. calculate taxable income on Form 1040 or Form 1040A, then transfer this amount to the worksheet
  2. subtract the amount of qualified dividends from the taxable income; this reduces the taxable income to the amount subject to the ordinary marginal tax rate
  3. calculate the taxes on the qualified dividends
  4. determine the taxes on the taxable income after subtracting the qualified dividends found in #2 (usually by looking it up in the tax table); this is the minimum tax
  5. then add the taxes on qualified dividends to the taxable income in the previous step
  6. transfer this lower tax amount to the next line on Form 1040 or 1040A

The worksheet finally asks to transfer the lower of the tax amounts between the tax with qualified dividends and the tax without qualified dividends. But qualified dividends always lowers the total tax, so the tax with qualified dividends will always be the lower tax, so it will be transferred to Form 1040 or 1040A.

Dividends are reported for the year when they are received. However, dividends declared during October through December by a mutual fund or REIT are taxable for that year, even if the dividend is not actually received until the following year.

Return of capital distributions are not taxable, except for any excess of the distributions over the stock basis of the shareholder. The shareholder reduces the basis of his stock by the amount of the distribution, but not below 0. Any excess distribution is reported as a capital gain on Schedule D, Capital Gains and Losses; whether the gain is long-term or short-term depends on whether the shareholder held the stock longer than one year.

Dividends paid by insurance companies based on their policies are usually a return of premium, which is not taxable unless the distribution exceeds the total premiums paid by the policyholder. However, these dividends are taxable if they were claimed as a business expense in prior years, in which case they are included as business income when received. Dividends of capital stock of insurance companies are taxable. If the policyholder left the dividends with the insurance company to earn interest, then the interest is taxable. However, dividends paid by VA insurance is never taxable, nor is any interest earned by the dividends.

If the taxpayer received dividends from restricted stock for services performed either as an employee or independent contractor, then these dividends must be reported as wages rather than as dividend income.