When making company stock sales, always proceed with caution.

For reasons beyond your control, you may find yourself in a position where you suddenly need to come up with cash to meet urgent living expenses, such as paying rent or a mortgage, or other financial demands, such as a medical bill or a car payment. The proceeds from selling shares of your company's stock, whether acquired via equity compensation or the open market, can be a source of these needed funds.

However, when making stock sales you must always proceed with caution. Before you sell your company shares, review this checklist of topics to understand on tax, company, brokerage firm, and SEC rules.

1. Understand Capital Gains Tax Basics To Generate Capital Losses

When you sell shares, assuming they’re not in a retirement plan account (e.g. a 401(k) or IRA), you generate a capital gain or a capital loss. The calculation is the amount of the sale proceeds over or under your cost basis, i.e. what the shares cost to acquire plus any W-2 income you recognized for the equity compensation. For stock held over one year after a stock option exercise, vesting of restricted stock units (RSUs), or a purchase in an employee stock purchase plan (ESPP), the gain or loss is long-term, meaning a lower tax rate applies. Shares held for less than one year are taxed at short-term capital gains rates, similar to that of your salary income.

First sell stock that generates a capital loss which you can harvest against capital gains.

If you have a choice of company shares to sell, you want to first sell stock that generates a capital loss which you can harvest against capital gains. What that means is that you can net the capital losses against any current capital gains, with unused losses deducted against $3,000 of your ordinary income. The remainder of the loss is carried forward to future tax years. When you do not have shares to sell at a loss, your next choice is stock that has the smallest long-term capital gain.

2. Clearly Identify The Lot Of Shares You Want To Sell

When you hold company shares that you’ve received at various times, such as yearly RSU vesting or twice-yearly ESPP purchases, you want to identify at the time of sale which share lot is being sold. The default rule is “first in, first out” (FIFO), but you can choose. Any shares you received at a recent market high are the ones you want to sell for a loss. Make sure you get clarification on how to indicate specific lots to sell through your brokerage firm’s website.

3. Watch Out For Wash Sales

A “wash sale” is deemed to occur if you sell company stock at a loss but you have also separately purchased the same stock within 30 days before or after the sale. That triggers the special rules for wash sales. Under those rules, the loss and holding period are carried over to the replacement shares.

According to most experts, any restricted stock or RSU vesting 30 days before or after the loss sale would be considered a wash sale and trigger the related rules. Similar treatment applies to an option exercise, ESPP purchase, or dividend reinvestment plan on company stock. Those are all considered purchases.

4. Job Loss? Carefully Follow Your Company’s Post-Termination Stock Option Exercise Rules

If you lose your job, vesting stops, so be prepared to quickly exercise any outstanding vested stock options. Typically you have 90 days or less after your employment termination.

You may intend to exercise stock options and immediately sell the shares to generate needed cash. However, if you lose your job, vesting usually stops on all types of stock compensation. In that case, you must quickly exercise any outstanding vested stock options, typically within 90 days or less of your employment termination. As explained in this website's section Job Events, if you do not exercise vested in-the-money stock options in time you will forfeit their value.

Alert: Check your stock grant agreement and your stock plan for the rules and exercise deadlines that apply to each option grant upon job loss. If anything is unclear, ask your company's stock plan administrator.

5. Know Your Company’s Rules For ESPP Contributions

In an employee stock purchase plan, you can usually withdraw any accumulated funds that are waiting for the next purchase date. You need to check your company’s ESPP rules for how you do this. While an ESPP with a lookback and a 15% purchase discount can be an attractive investment in down markets, withdrawn ESPP funds can be another source of emergency funds. Furthermore, you can reduce or stop future ESPP contributions from your salary.

6. Be Mindful Of Holding Periods For ESPPs And ISOs

With stock from a purchase in a tax-qualified ESPP or an exercise of incentive stock options (ISOs), holding the shares for more than one year from enrollment/grant or two years from purchase/exercise gives you special tax treatment on the sale. Remember that the tax treatment is affected by selling those shares early. That's called a disqualifying disposition, with different ramifications for ESPPs and ISOs. This is another reason to carefully choose and specify the lot of shares you want to sell, as explained in #2 above.

7. Beware Of Insider Trading

Know that stock trades can actually get you into serious trouble. Beware accidental insider trading.

Understand that sometimes stock trades can actually get you into serious trouble. If you buy or sell shares of your company’s stock while you know material nonpublic information (MNPI), you are committing insider trading, which is illegal. Material nonpublic information refers to company secrets that, when made public, would move the company’s stock price up or down. This prohibition against trading on confidential inside information applies even if you are no longer employed by the company.

The type of information that could be considered MNPI is not always clear. However, common sense is a good guide. MNPI is any confidential company information that, once publicly known, could affect your company’s stock price in a positive or negative way. Examples include undisclosed financial results, a merger or acquisition that has not been announced, a new product that has not been publicized, or the results of clinical trials on pharmaceutical drugs still under development. This prohibition also applies to confidential information you learn in your job about a corporate client, supplier, or other organization that you work with.

Alert: The SEC and the US Department of Justice are watching closely for insider trading related to the impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on company financials and the stock market. They are expected to pursue enforcement activities (see a statement from the SEC).

In addition to the securities laws about insider trading, your company may also have its own stock-trading pre-clearance rules, along with mandated blackout periods and window periods for stock trading.