Are I bonds taxable? 10 common situations

Series I bonds are a popular investment that can also help you save on taxes, but the federal income tax consequences can be complex.

  • By Joy Taylor,
  • Kiplinger
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As investors seek to insulate their portfolio from inflation and the ups and downs in the stock market, many have turned to Series I savings bonds (I bonds). Because of the high inflation rate, I bonds are now paying an interest rate of 6.89%, which is a healthy, safe return on your investment. This rate applies for bonds issued through April 30, 2023. The inflation rate changes every six months from the bond’s issue date. But don't just focus on the investment return. I bonds also have important tax advantages for owners. For example, interest earned on I bonds is exempt from state and local taxation. Also, owners can defer federal income tax on the accrued interest for up to 30 years.

Unfortunately, though, the federal tax rules aren't always straightforward. As a result, the tax treatment of I bonds varies depending on who owns the bonds, whether you gift the bonds to someone else and in some cases, how the bonds are used. What follows are descriptions of how and when I bond interest is taxed under federal law in 10 common situations. If you currently hold I bonds or are thinking about buying them for your investment portfolio, hopefully this information will help you trim your tax bill while planning for the future.

Note: Many people own EE bonds. Although they earn much less interest than I bonds, the federal income tax consequences are identical to those of I bonds. So, holders of EE bonds, most of these rules also apply to you.

Buying I bonds for yourself

Buyers of I bonds have a choice when they acquire the bonds. They can pay federal income tax each year on the interest earned or defer the tax bill to the end. Most people choose the latter. They report the interest income on their Form 1040 for the year the bonds mature (generally, 30 years) or when they're cashed in, whichever comes first.

However, deferring tax on the full amount of accrued interest for up to 30 years may sound like a great idea until you get the tax bill for three decades worth of interest. Also, taking the tax hit all at once can push you into a higher tax bracket, making the bill even more expensive than it needed to be.

Buying I bonds for someone else

Savings bonds make great gifts. But if you buy I bonds for someone else, such as your children, grandchildren or any other person, the interest is reportable by that person, provided the bonds are titled in his or her name.

Just like any other holder of I bonds, the recipient can choose to defer paying tax on the interest until the earlier of the year the bonds mature or are cashed in, or he or she can report the interest annually.

I bonds issued to co-owners

For I bonds issued in the name of co-owners, such as a parent and child or grandparent and grandchild, the interest is generally taxable to the co-owner whose funds were used to buy the bonds. However, that co-owner can choose to defer paying tax on the interest or report it annually. This is true even if the other co-owner redeems the bonds and keeps all the proceeds.

Buying I bonds with your tax refund

If you're due a refund with your federal tax return, the IRS makes it easy for you to use all or part of that money to buy an I bond. Just file Form 8888 with your Form 1040. You don't need to open an account in advance on Treasury Direct, the government clearinghouse for buying and redeeming U.S. savings bonds. If you complete the Form 8888, the IRS will cause the I bonds to be mailed to you.

You can buy up to $5,000 in I bonds (note they come in increments of $50) with your tax refund. If you decide to go down this route, you'll receive paper I bonds in the mail that are issued in your name (or in the name of you and your spouse if you filed a joint tax return). You can also use your tax refund to buy I bonds in the name of anyone else, such as your child or grandchild. Again, you would elect this on Form 8888.

Alternatively, if you have a Treasury Direct account, you may be able to use all or part of your tax refund to buy up to $10,000 of electronic I bonds.

Cashing in I bonds

If you cashed in I bonds last year, you must report the interest on line 2b of Form 1040 and pay tax to the extent you didn't otherwise include the interest income in a prior year. If you received $1,500 or more in interest during the year, you would also have to fill out Schedule B and attach it to your tax return.

If you used the bond proceeds to pay for higher education, some of the interest may be exempt (see below).

If you used the bond proceeds to pay for higher education, some of the interest may be exempt (see below). See the instructions for Schedule B and Form 8815 on how to report any excluded interest.

Holding I bonds until maturity

If you keep the I bonds through the date they mature, generally 30 years, and you didn’t otherwise include the interest income in a prior year, you will be taxed on all the accrued but previously untaxed interest in the year of maturity, whether or not you cash them in. You would report the interest on line 2b of Form 1040 and attach Schedule B if you earned $1,500 or more of interest.

If you do cash the bonds in during the year they mature, and you used the bonds proceeds to pay for higher education, some of the interest may be exempt (see below).

Redeeming I bonds to pay for higher education

One way to avoid paying any federal income tax on accrued I bond interest is to cash in the bonds before the maturity date and use the proceeds to help pay for college or other higher education expenses. But there are lots of rules and hurdles to jump over to be able to take advantage of this additional tax perk. For instance:

  • You must have purchased the bonds after 1989 when you were at least 24 years old;
  • The bonds must be in your name only;
  • The bonds must be redeemed to pay for undergraduate, graduate or vocational school tuition and fees for you, your spouse or your dependent;
  • Grandparents can't use this tax break to help pay for their grandchild's college tuition unless the grandparent can, on his or her 1040, claim the grandkid as a dependent;
  • Room and board costs aren't eligible for the exclusion; and
  • The exclusion is subject to strict income limit (for 2023, it begins to phase out at modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $137,800 for joint filers and $91,850 for others…the 2022 modified AGI beginning phaseout thresholds are $128,650 and $85,800).

If the proceeds from all savings bonds cashed in during the year exceed the qualified education expenses paid that year, the amount of interest you can exclude is reduced proportionally.

Use IRS Schedule B and Form 8815 to report and calculate any excluded I bond interest used for education.

Gifting I bonds that you own

Gifting an I bond before maturity will accelerate taxation of the interest income. Giving away bonds you already own to someone else doesn't get you off the hook with Uncle Sam for owing money on previously untaxed interest. If the bonds are reissued in the gift recipient's name, you're still taxed on all that interest in the year of the gift.

Donating I bonds to charity

Donating an I bond before it matures to charity while you're alive will also accelerate taxation of the interest income. As with gifts to other people, giving away bonds you already own to your alma mater, favorite museum or other charitable organization doesn't let you avoid the tax on previously untaxed interest. You're still taxed on all that interest in the year the donation is made.

Inheriting I bonds

If you inherit I bonds that haven't yet matured, who is taxed on the accrued interest that went untaxed because the original owner deferred the interest? It depends. The executor of the decedent's estate can choose to include all pre-death interest earned on the bonds on the decedent's final income tax return. If this is done, the beneficiary reports only post-death interest on Form 1040 when the bonds mature or are redeemed, whichever comes first. If the executor doesn't include the interest income on the deceased owner's final federal income tax return, the beneficiary will owe taxes on all pre-death and post-death interest once the bond matures or is redeemed, again whichever is earlier.

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