Q&A: Figuring homes’ adjusted basis

Dear Liz: In your response to a question about the adjusted basis of a residence after the death of a spouse, you state that the surviving spouse may add to the adjusted basis “any commissions or fees paid to purchase the property and the cost of improvements.” Your example adds $150,000 in “improvements over the years” to the $850,000 value of the home at the time of the spouse’s death in 1992. Wouldn’t those improvements (and other costs) have to be made after the date of the spouse’s death, since otherwise they would already be included in determining the value of the home at the date of death?

Answer: Good point. If the surviving spouse lives in a community property state, only improvements that happened after the date of the first spouse’s death would increase the basis, because both halves of the property get a step up to the current fair market value when one spouse dies. In other states, only the deceased spouse’s half of the property would get the step up. The surviving spouse can add his or her half of the improvements made before the death, and anything done after the death, to the tax basis to determine home sale profits.

Q&A: Capital gains on house sale

Dear Liz: I am one of those seniors who purchased their house in the 1970s. I would like to move but I’m reluctant because of the huge capital gain tax that I would have to pay. The exemption amount has not been raised since 1997 when it was enacted. In comparison, the estate tax exemption has risen from $600,000 in 1997 to more than $11 million currently. Wouldn’t raising the capital gain exemption stimulate the real estate market as more people would put their homes on the market and give more first-time buyers a chance at homeownership?

Answer: Perhaps, but you shouldn’t let tax law be the sole determinant of what you do or don’t do. Minimizing taxes can be a factor in your decisions but shouldn’t be the only one.

Also, keep in mind that the median home price in the U.S. is currently $226,300, according to real estate site Zillow. Most homeowners haven’t seen and probably won’t see enough appreciation to use a single $250,000 exemption, let alone the $500,000 available to couples.

So you may have a problem, but it’s an enviable problem. Even if you pay taxes at top rates, you’ll still have a substantial sum left over. And you may be able to spread out the tax bill using an installment agreement, in which the buyer pays you over time. You’ll want a tax pro’s help if you go that route, but you should consult one in any case to make sure you’re taking advantage of every other legal opportunity to reduce what you owe.

Q&A: Loans, taxes and home sales

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about determining home sale profits for a widow. My question is how you calculate taxes when there’s a loan in the mix. For instance, when I bought my home, I took out a mortgage. Subsequently, I took out a second mortgage to pay for a pool and landscaping. I also refinanced several times, but never took a mortgage with cash out. Please advise me how to calculate my cost basis given these loans. Of course, you can broaden your response to include other loan scenarios and how they play into cost basis.

Answer: This will be a short answer, because they don’t. What you owe the mortgage lender(s) is typically irrelevant for calculating your capital gain.

Q&A: Death means capital gains take a holiday for heirs selling a house

Dear Liz: I am in my mid-80s and in declining health. I want to advise my beneficiaries about possible taxation on the sale of my home after I expire. I bought the place in 1995 for $152,000. It now has a market value of about $400,000. The issue is whether that gain is taxable upon the sale after my death. I also have a $57,000 long-term capital loss carry-forward in my income taxes, which is being written off at a rate of $3,000 each year.

Answer: The gain in your home’s value won’t be taxable at your death. Instead, the home will get what’s known as a “step up in basis.” That means its new value for tax purposes will be its market value when you die. So if it’s worth $400,000 when you die and your heirs sell it for $400,000, no capital gains taxes will be owed on the sale.

The news isn’t so good for your capital loss, however. Any unused carryover expires at your death and can’t be transferred to your estate.

As you know, capital losses — losses on investments or assets that you sell — can be used to offset capital gains and reduce your tax bill. If your losses exceed your gains, you can offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income each year. Any capital loss remaining after that can be used the next year in the same way: first to offset capital gains, then to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income.

Often when taxpayers have such a loss, they’re encouraged to sell investments that have increased in value to help use up the loss faster, but you should talk to your tax pro and estate planning attorney to see if that makes sense in your case.

Q&A: Giving a gift with a built-in loss

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about the tax implications of gifting stock to children. You mentioned that if the stock had lost value since its purchase, the children could use the loss to offset capital gains or, in the absence of gains, up to $3,000 a year of income, with the ability to carry over that loss to subsequent years until it’s used up.

But if a stock has a built-in loss, why not sell it, realize the loss and give the kids the cash? That way, the loss is sure to be recognized unless the donor dies before fully utilizing the capital loss or the carryover. If the child really wants that particular stock, he or she can use the cash to buy it. The children would have to be mindful of the wash-sale rules that prohibit deducting a loss if a related party buys the same stock, but waiting 31 days would be enough to avoid that.

In my view, there’s rarely a good reason to gift a stock (or most other assets) that has a built-in loss.

Answer: Exactly. Selling the asset and taking the tax benefit usually makes more sense than transferring the shares. The loss essentially evaporates, because the assets get a new value for tax purposes when transferred.

Selling losing stocks is certainly better than bequeathing them to your heirs. The loss essentially evaporates at your death, because the assets get a new value for tax purposes, so no one gets the potential tax break.

Q&A: Figuring out capital gains when an inherited house is sold

Dear Liz: I’ve have been following your responses related to the tax exemption on home sales. I understand that up to $250,000 per person of home sale profit is exempt from capital gains taxes and that married couples are entitled to exempt up to $500,000.

My spouse and her two siblings inherited a home from their parents. My father-in-law passed away four years ago, and my mother-in-law died last year. My wife was assigned as executor of their living trust. Who is entitled to take the tax exemption of the proceeds from the sale of the house? My wife? All three siblings? All of the above and their spouses?

Answer: None of the above, but don’t despair because the house will incur little if any capital gains when it’s sold.

We’ll assume your mother-in-law inherited the house outright from her husband, since that’s usually the case. When your mother-in-law died, the house received a “step up” in tax basis to reflect its current market value. If the house was worth $2 million when she died, for example, that’s the new value for tax purposes — even if she and your father-in-law paid only $25,000 decades ago for the house. All the gain that occurred in between their purchase and her death won’t be taxed.

If your wife sells the house for $2.2 million, there potentially would be some taxable capital gain. But the costs of marketing and selling the home would be deducted from its sale price. If those costs are 6% of the sale price — which is a pretty conservative assumption — the taxable gain would be about $68,000. (Six percent of $2.2 million is $132,000. Subtract the $2 million value at death and the $132,000 of sales costs, and you’re left with $68,000.) If your wife as executor sells the house and distributes the proceeds to the beneficiaries, the estate would pay the tax. If siblings inherit the house and then sell it, they would pay any tax.

Every year, millions of dollars of potential capital gain vanish this way as people inherit appreciated property. It’s a huge benefit of the estate tax system that many people don’t understand until they’re the beneficiaries of it.

Q&A: Capital gains

Dear Liz: If and when we sell our house, the capital gain is likely to exceed the $500,000 exemption limit. I am carrying over a loss of about $100,000 from stock sales. Can I use this loss to offset the capital gain from the house?

Answer: Yes. Capital losses can be used to offset capital gains, including those from a home sale.

Q&A: Spreading out the tax hit from capital gains

Dear Liz: We are in the lowest tax bracket. If we sell a capital gains asset worth several hundred thousand dollars, does that put us in a higher bracket and we pay 20% or do we remain in the lower bracket and pay 15%?

Answer: In the two lowest federal income tax brackets, the capital gains rate is actually zero. For a married couple filing jointly, taxable income below $18,550 in 2016 would put you in the 10% tax bracket, while income between $18,550 and $75,300 would put you in the 15% bracket. Both 10% and 15% income tax brackets pay no federal tax on long-term capital gains.

But capital gains count as income in determining your tax bracket. So a big capital gain can push you into a higher bracket, which means you would pay a higher capital gains rate.

Let’s say your normal taxable income is $75,000. You sell an asset with a $25,000 capital gain. Now you’re in the 25% tax bracket with taxable income between $75,300 and $151,900, which means your long-term capital gains rate will be 15%.

A really big gain would put you in the top 39.6% bracket, which applies to taxable income above $466,950. In that bracket, your capital gains rate would be 20%. Also, an additional 3.8% surtax applies for taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes over $250,000 for married couples and $200,000 for singles. The surtax is applied to the lesser of the taxpayer’s net investment income or the amounts over those limits.

There may be ways to alleviate or spread out the tax hit. You could sell losing investments to offset some or all of the gain. Another option for some assets is to sell a portion at a time over several years, or use an installment sale. A tax pro can walk you through your options.

Q&A: Calculating capital gains and losses

Dear Liz: With my father’s recent passing, I received a substantial inheritance, much of it in the form of stocks and mutual funds. If I sell these assets, do I calculate the capital gains and losses based on the date I took possession of the assets? Or do I use their value on the date of his death?

Answer: Typically you’d use the date of his death. If your father’s estate was very large and owed estate taxes, however, the executor may have chosen an alternative valuation date six months from the date of death. This option is available if the value of the estate would have been lower on the later date.

There is a circumstance in which your basis would be the value on the date the assets were turned over to you, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting U.S. If the executor elected the alternate valuation date, but the assets were actually distributed to you before that date, then the basis is the fair market value on the date of distribution, Luscombe said.

Inherited assets usually get a “step up” in basis when someone dies, so there’s no tax owed on any of the growth in those assets that occurred while the person was alive. Inheritors have to pay taxes only on the growth that occurs between the date of death (or the alternate evaluation or distribution date) and when the assets are sold.

The assets would get long-term capital gains treatment regardless of how long you’d owned them, which is another helpful tax break.

Q&A: Capital gains and mutual funds

Dear Liz: Your tax expert’s answer to a person who wanted to roll over a $30,000 capital gain on a mutual fund missed an important point. Since the couple were solidly in the 15% tax bracket with a taxable income under $72,000, they should qualify for the 0% federal capital gain tax rate. (They may, of course, owe state taxes.)

Answer: They may not have had a capital gain at all, as other tax pros have pointed out. When people own mutual funds, the earnings are often reinvested each year. If the couple paid taxes on those earnings, their basis in the mutual fund would increase each year. To know if the couple had any capital gain, we’d need to know that adjusted tax basis. In any case, the original answer — that you can’t roll over the gain on a mutual fund into another investment to avoid capital gains taxes — still stands.