Cost Basis: What Is It? Why Does It Matter?
As another tax season comes to a close, there are people all over the country digging through shoe boxes and file cabinets trying to meet their tax accountants’ request for cost basis information on an investment they sold last year. Hundreds of thousands of tax returns are moments away from being filed if only the taxpayer could find that elusive cost basis information. So what is cost basis, why is it so important, and why can’t anyone ever find it?
At its simplest, cost basis is the purchase price you paid for an investment or piece of property. More than that, it also includes the expenses that went directly into the purchase including commissions, trade fees, appraisal and legal expenses. Cost basis can also grow over time due to reinvested dividends on mutual funds or if you made significant improvements to your property.
When you sell an investment or property, cost basis is vital for figuring out if you made or lost money on the sale. The IRS wants to know your gain on the sale and expects you to pay taxes on it. If you lost money on an investment, it is important to report that as well. The loss will almost always be subtracted from your gains on other investment sales thereby lowering your tax bill.
The IRS puts the responsibility for keeping track of cost basis on the owner of the investment or property. Maintaining good records on investments in particular seems to be impossible for all but the most organized. With the blizzard of paperwork that the investment company sends aren’t they keeping track of this? Yes and no. Prior to 2011, the investment companies kept track of your cost basis but they were under no obligation to transfer that information if you transferred your assets to a new investment company.
Statements at your new investment company would only reflect the cost basis of investments purchased through them. As of 2011, all investment companies are required to transfer the cost basis information when transferring assets. Unfortunately, if an account has been moved a couple times prior to 2011, the cost basis of some assets is only known if the owner still has the records of the original purchase.
Anyone one with a brokerage account (not an IRA which gets taxed differently) or investment properties needs to keep good records of their purchases and related expenses. While investment companies are finally doing their part, it will be years before all the investments purchased before 2011 with missing cost basis information are sold and people can throw out those shoeboxes of old statements.
For anyone splitting up assets in a divorce, it is important to get the cost basis information during the divorce process. Make sure to get a statement of any investment account being split. Also make sure to get all the expense receipts for any investment properties that are being transferred. If you get this information during the divorce, you don’t have to go asking for it later only to find that the statements got thrown out during moving or mysteriously “disappeared”.
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