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Avoid 4 mistakes to help cut taxes on mutual funds

Duncan Richardson routinely keeps a quarter in his pocket, but it's not spending money. The chief equity investment officer for investment manager Eaton Vance frequently digs the coin out and uses it as a prop to illustrate the drain that taxes can have on investments.

"Investors could be unnecessarily giving away nearly a quarter of every dollar in returns to Uncle Sam," Richardson says.

He notes that the more than 9 percent historic average for stock market returns fails to subtract taxes, not to mention investment fees and inflation.

Richardson's advice: "Keep the quarter. It's yours."

He's not suggesting doing anything suspect. In most circumstances, taxes are unavoidable. At best, the bill can be delayed by using a tax-sheltered account.

But many investors -- especially those in higher tax brackets -- don't rely exclusively on an individual retirement account or 401(k), in which earnings can grow tax-free. In fact, about 45 percent of all mutual fund assets are held in taxable accounts.

Although investors can take some relatively simple steps to minimize their tax bills, many fail to do so.

Investors with stock mutual funds held in taxable accounts gave up nearly 1 percentage point of their investment returns to taxes each year from 2000 through 2009, according to a study by fund tracker Lipper Inc. That was in a decade when the Standard & Poor's 500 averaged a 1 percent loss annually, not counting the additional 1 percent hit from taxes. When stocks rallied in the late 1990s, taxes shaved nearly 3 percentage points from returns.

Now that tax-filing season is over, investors might wish to review whether they made any mistakes in 2011 that triggered unexpected capital gains or other tax troubles.

Richardson says tax strategies for fund investors aren't rocket science, yet he sees the same mistakes repeated, year after year. Below are some of the most common:

*Putting the right investments in the wrong accounts. Some investments are more likely to trigger a tax bill. So keep investments that are likely to generate tax obligations in tax-sheltered accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s, where only withdrawals are taxed.

"It's important to think not just about asset allocation," says Richardson, "but asset location."

*Choosing high-turnover funds. When mutual fund managers sell investments that have appreciated in value, they pass on the capital gains to investors. It can happen even if a fund lost money overall, since it's the appreciation of the fund's individual, rather than collective, holdings that trigger capital gains. The less trading a fund manager does, the smaller the chance that investors will be stuck with capital gains triggering taxes.

*Failing to consider timing. If you're investing using a taxable account, and a mutual fund expects to distribute capital gains, wait until after the distribution date to invest any new cash. If you don't, you could get hit with a tax bill covering gains that you didn't profit from, because they occurred before you invested.

*Failing to watch for higher rates. Avoiding further missteps could become increasingly important because taxes on investment income are set to rise sharply in January, unless Congress acts to extend currently low rates. The outcome won't be known until after the elections. Expect a lame-duck Congress and President Obama to decide in November or December whether to grant another extension for Bush-era tax cuts.

The increases would be steep if nothing is done. For example, dividend income that now tops out at a 15 percent tax rate could rise to as much as 43.4 percent.

That would be the outcome for investors in the top income bracket, if their dividends are taxed as ordinary income at 39.6 percent. The dividend rate would climb to 43.4 percent, adding in a 3.8 percent tax on investment income that takes effect in 2013. That's a new tax that Congress approved to help finance Obama's health care overhaul.

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