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How to Determine Cost Basis of Old Stock

A  MarketWatch column reader recently commented about how difficult it is to figure out the basis of securities held for a very long term. His solution – donate all the stocks to a favorite charity.

Is that a good idea?

Actually, yes. According to the IRS, as long as you elect to limit your contribution deduction to 30% of your adjusted gross income, you can avoid all the ‘basis’ headaches. You end up getting a contribution deduction for the fair market value of the stocks, and you don’t have to figure out how much the stocks cost you, your parents, or aunt Martha

Past History

More of us are going to tackle the basis challenge. For example, a client of mine recently sold some stock that she had inherited about 15 years. We don’t have the records any longer – they were destroyed about 10 years ago. What to do?

No doubt, given the date of her mother’s death, we could find the value of those stocks. (Note: Inheritance basis is determined at date of death.) MarketWatch has a nifty historical tool, which allows you to look up the fair market value of a stock on any given date – from 1971 forward. Yahoo’s database seems to start in 1962.

Pretty easy. But she has held the shares for 16 years, reinvesting the dividends. Some of those stocks have probably split – and spun off other subsidiaries – or re-absorbed them.  Who knows?

I could invest a couple of hours trying to reconstruct the data, contacting the corporations, the transfer agents, or even my own broker, to find the years worth of data. How much would that cost a client to have their tax professional do this? Several hundred dollars. Remember, tax pros tend to charge hourly rates of between $200 and $500 an hour, perhaps more. Even staff time bills out at about $100 per hour.

What’s the alternative? That NetBasis software that I wrote about in the MarketWatch.com article certainly looks tempting, and is something I plan to try. The cost starts at $19.50 to look up one stock’s history and declines, per stock, as you add more stocks.

Looking to the future

Effective this year, our financial institutions need to start providing the basis data in our brokerage accounts. During 1099 season in 2012, they will have to provide 1099s that show the basis of any stocks we sell.

Where will they get the information about the basis of stocks that were transferred to their accounts? We – you and I – will have to provide that information for our own accounts.  Fortunately, we have nine more months to start digging up the historical information on the variety of shares we have transferred to our accounts. Otherwise those 1099s will show no basis on some of the sales – or nonsense amounts.

While you’re doing your digging, be sure to look at your stock holdings to see what you’ve sold off. If you’re starting your historic reconstruction with the original number of shares you bought, remember to deduct the cost of the shares you sold, using their basis at the time of the sale.

While not all corporations are helpful, don’t overlook tools that some companies provide that help with your stock valuations. For instance, many of us are familiar with AT&T’s Baby Bell split. You can go to the AT&T website to help identify your basis, including splits, dividends, and spin-offs. The  Walt Disney Company has split and spun off units over the years. Its website also provides tools.

Readers, what will you be doing this year to update your bases with your brokerages?


Eva Rosenberg, EA, is the publisher of TaxMama.com, where your tax questions are answered. Eva is the author of several books and e-books, including the newest edition of “Small Business Taxes Made Easy,” now available at your favorite bookseller. Eva teaches a tax-pro course at IRSExams.com.


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About The Tax Blog

  • The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (SmartMoney.com), retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at thetaxblog@dowjones.com.