Bonds and bond funds are taxed in 2 ways—based on the income that's distributed and on any gains if the investment is sold at a profit. Because individual bonds and bond funds distribute income differently and treat your principal differently, there are also some differences in how that income and any capital gains are taxed.
Taxes on individual bonds
Tax on income
The tax implications of individual bonds are fairly straightforward: If an investor owns bonds that generate taxable income (which covers almost all bonds except for municipal bonds, in general), he or she is taxed on that income in the year it's received.
Interest income generated by municipal bonds is generally not subject to federal taxes, and may be tax-exempt at the state and local level as well, if the bonds were issued by the state in which you live. To learn more about municipal bond and tax-free investing, please visit our Fixed Income Research Center. As always, you should consult a tax professional for more help.
Tax on capital gains
A capital gain is tax terminology for a profit. If you bought the bond when it was issued at its original issue price and hold it until maturity, you generally will not recognize a capital gain (or loss). As a result, you likely won't incur any capital gains tax.
If, however, you purchase a municipal bond in the secondary market at a discount to the revised issue price, you can be taxed as either a capital gain or ordinary income, depending on the size of the discount and the years to maturity of the bond.
Taxes on bond funds
Mutual funds that invest in bonds typically provide regular income from a portfolio of many securities. As a result, the tax on the income is dependent on the types of securities held by the fund. What’s more, since fund managers regularly buy and sell bonds, there may also be capital gains and losses incurred. Bond funds pass along the interest income and capital gains on their investments to shareholders, who are then taxed on the taxable portion of those distributions. While you will want to consider a fund’s total return when evaluating it as an investment, keep in mind that the stated historical return of a fund is usually expressed as a pretax number.
Tax on income
The interest generated by bond funds is typically calculated daily, but paid out to investors monthly. How that income is taxed depends on the underlying investments that are generating that income. The income from taxable bond funds is generally taxed at the federal and state level at ordinary income tax rates in the year it was earned. Funds that exclusively hold U.S. Treasury bonds may be exempt from state taxes. Interest income generated by municipal bond funds is generally not subject to federal taxes, and may also be exempt from state and local taxes if the bonds held by the fund were issued by the state in which you live. Before buying a fund, read its prospectus to determine whether interest from the fund is expected to be subject to federal, state, or local taxes.
Tax on capital gains
There are 2 ways investors could owe capital gains tax on a bond fund investment. First, there are the capital gains (and losses) generated by the fund manager, as he or she buys and sells securities. Whether the profit from the sale of a bond in the fund is taxed at ordinary income tax rates or is eligible for a reduced capital gains rate is dependent on the same factors as explained above. These gains or losses are generally distributed to investors once or twice a year. The fund company will account for how your total gain or loss is generated and will tell you which portion is attributable to long-term capital gains, short-term capital gains, and interest income—all of which will affect the amount of tax you owe.
Secondly, when you sell shares of the fund itself, you'll incur a gain or a loss depending on your cost basis, the amount of your initial investment, and any reinvested dividends. Any capital gains are taxable, and any capital losses may generate a tax benefit.
You may want to consult with your tax advisor to find out how the specifics of your individual tax situation may affect the tax treatment of income generated by your investments.
Like other investments, the tax owed on bonds and bond funds can be deferred by holding them in a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) or IRA. With that strategy, you won’t owe any tax until you withdraw money at retirement, at which point you'll owe ordinary income tax on any distribution.
If taxable bond funds or individual bonds are held in a tax-free account such as a Roth IRA, then the income from them would be free from federal taxes, provided certain requirements are met.