Q&A: Figuring the tax toll for an inherited house

Dear Liz: I inherited my home when my husband died. If I sell this house now at a current market value of around $900,000, what will be the basis of the capital gains tax? I think at the time of my husband’s death, the house’s market value was $400,000.

Answer: Based on your phrasing, we’ll assume your husband was the home’s sole owner when he died. In that case, the home got a new value for tax purposes of $400,000. That tax basis would be increased by the cost of any improvements you made while you owned it. When you sell, you subtract your basis from the sale price, minus the costs to sell the home, such as the real estate agent’s commission, to determine your gain. You can exempt up to $250,000 of the gain from taxation if it’s your primary residence and you’ve lived in the house at least two of the previous five years. You would owe capital gains taxes on the remaining profit.

Here’s how the math might work. Let’s say you made $50,000 in improvements to the home, raising your tax basis to $450,000. You pay your real estate agent a 6% commission on the $900,000 sale, or $54,000. The net sale price is then $846,000, from which you subtract $450,000 to get a gain of $396,000. If you meet the requirements for the home sale exclusion, you can subtract $250,000 from that amount, leaving $146,000 as the taxable gain.

If your husband was not the sole owner — if you owned the home together when he died — the tax treatment essentially would be the same if you lived in a community property state such as California. In other states, only his share of the home would receive the step-up in tax basis and you would retain the original tax basis for your share.

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