Q&A: Rules for inherited property

Dear Liz: If someone owns an asset, such as a home or stocks, and passes away, the heirs can get a stepped-up cost basis. What if that same person also owned a second home, vacation property and rentals? Do those properties also get a stepped-up cost basis for the heirs?

Answer: Typically, yes. A step-up in cost basis means that the increase in value that happened during a person’s lifetime isn’t subject to capital gains taxes. Let’s say your mom bought a stock for $2 and it was worth $10 at her death. If she had sold it herself just before she died, or given it to you to sell, taxes would be owed on the $8 gain. If she bequeathed the stock to you in her will instead, you could sell it for $10 and owe no tax. If the price went up to $11 before you sold, you would owe tax on the $1 gain since her death.

The step up in basis also wipes out the need to recapture depreciation taken for rental and commercial properties, says tax expert Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. (Depreciation is the loss in value over time due to age and wear and tear. Depreciation write-offs allow owners to deduct over several years the costs of buying and improving a rental or commercial property.) If your mom owned an apartment building and wrote off the depreciation, she would need to pay depreciation recapture taxes if she sold it. If you inherit the building, by contrast, you not only don’t owe taxes on the depreciation she took, but you can start depreciating the building all over again.

There’s an important exception to these general rules, however. If your mom placed the asset in an irrevocable trust before her death, it would be treated the same as a gift when you inherit it after her death, Luscombe says. You would get her basis, which means you would owe taxes on all the gain that happened during her lifetime plus any depreciation recapture taxes when you sold the asset.

Irrevocable trusts aren’t the same as the revocable living trusts people use to avoid probate, but are sometimes used when people are trying to get assets out of their estates to reduce future estate taxes. For the vast majority, though, estate taxes are no longer an issue, so irrevocable trusts can cause potentially unnecessary tax issues.

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