The U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision upheld the central tenant of most state’s municipal bond tax policy, specifically that a state can exempt it’s own muni bonds from taxes while taxing the interest on other state’s muni bonds. So, nothing changes from before. If you live in California, the only way to avoid state tax on bond interest is to buy California Municipal Bonds. If you buy bonds from Texas, they can tax that interest.
Taxes and Bonds
Because interest on bonds is taxed as ordinary income, avoiding taxes on that interest is more important to investors than avoiding taxes on dividends paid by stocks. Most corporate bonds are taxed at both the federal and state level which reduces the real rate of return to the investor. Municipal bonds issued by states are exempt from federal income tax because one branch of the government cannot tax another branch. Whether or not the state municipal bonds are exempt from state income tax is determined by the laws of the states they are issued in. Most states make their own bonds tax-free as a way to make them more attractive for purchase. This tax-free status, plus the relative safety of most municipal bonds can make them an attractive investment for those in higher tax brackets.
However, these same benefits mean that muni bonds generally pay lower rates than other bonds. For federal taxes, if you are in a low tax bracket, the lower rate can actually mean a lessor overall return than if you invested in corporate bonds. The break even point is often somewhere around the 25% tax-bracket or above.
For state taxes, the analysis depends on the state you reside in. In Colorado, state income taxes are a flat 4.63% while in California, they go up with income like federal taxes. So, an investor in Colorado below the 25% income tax bracket may not reap any benefit from the tax-free nature of municipal bonds, while an investor in a higher bracket in California may come out way ahead by investing in California municipal bonds.
Higher Yield Muni Bonds
Some states do not have an income tax. (They usually have much higher sales taxes or property taxes than those that do.) For those states, municipal bonds can carry a higher interest rate. Texas, for example, does not have an income tax. Therefore, there is no advantage to Texans to buy Texas issued municipal bonds over those issued by other states. As a result, similarly rated Texas Municipal Bonds often end up paying a higher interest rate in order to attract investors. If you are looking to invest in municipal bonds but don’t need the state income tax deduction for your planning purposes (if you live in a low income tax state) then when investing always make sure to check out the non-tax state’s municipal bonds as well as your home state.