Earned Income vs. Unearned Income

The IRS makes a distinction between earned income and unearned income. Know the difference.

When you file your taxes, it is important to understand the difference between earned income and unearned income. Indeed, one of the tax lessons that we can learn from Mitt Romney is that unearned income can be beneficial, depending on the current tax laws. Plus, unearned income can be a great way to build up income streams that require you to do a little less work over time.

Earned Income

For the most part, the difference between earned income and unearned income is fairly straightforward. Earned income is something that you receive in exchange for the work you do or the services you provide. My income from my home business as a freelance writer is earned income. When you make money in wages, tips, and professional fees, you have earned income.

If you are involved in a business, and help with the day-to-day running of the business, you have earned income. And, interestingly, true alimony is considered earned income (but child support isn’t). You might also need to count foreign income as earned income, and you should talk to a financial or tax professional if you aren’t sure if your real estate income counts as earned income or unearned income. But, for most people, the bulk of the income they have is earned.

Unearned Income

Many people equate unearned income with passive income. In some cases, this type of income is passive. Unearned income is money that you receive without doing “work” for it. According to the IRS, unearned income includes your income from interest, dividends and capital gains. In some cases, this income is taxed differently. Right now (this is due to expire soon), dividends are taxed as long-term capital gains, which means this income might be taxed at a lower rate than your marginal tax rate.

Long-term capital gains are taxed differently than short-term capital gains and regular income. This means that if you are in a higher tax bracket, your long-term gains are often taxed at a lower rate. This can be very helpful to you — especially if you have a lot of investment income.

Other unearned income sources include:

  • Income from retirement account distributions
  • Unemployment compensation (but you do pay taxes on unemployment benefits)
  • Social Security benefits
  • Debt forgiveness
  • Winnings from gambling
  • Some real estate income

It’s also worth noting that if you receive income from an estate, trust, partnership or S corporation, without being an active part of the management, that might also be considered unearned income.

Realize, though, that even your unearned income has to be reported — and it will likely be taxed. There are places on your tax form to report various types of income. The IRS wants to know what you make, and where the money comes from. Be sure to account for all of your income, and properly report it. It you under-report, you could face penalties, fines and even jail. If you need help, consult the IRS web site, or a knowledgeable tax professional.

Written by Miranda Marquit

Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger, specializing in personal finance, small business, and investing topics. She writes for a number of financial web sites and blogs, and has been featured in numerous media. Read about life as a freelancer at MirandaMarquit.com and in her book Confessions of a Professional Blogger.

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