Q&A: Here’s why two siblings who inherited mom’s house should prepare for an ugly family feud

Dear Liz: My mother left her house to my brother and me. He wants to use it as a rental property. I have no interest in being a landlord or in ownership. He doesn’t want to buy me out, so I’d like to sell my half interest. What are the tax issues I need to prepare for, and does my brother need to sign any documents?

Answer: You should first prepare for an ugly family feud. If the property hasn’t been distributed yet, you’ll face a probate or trust contest over the house, says Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. If you’ve already inherited the home, you would need to go to court to file a real estate partition action. Either way, a court action typically forces a sale or arranges for your brother to buy you out before dividing the proceeds — minus all the attorneys’ fees, of course. (This is not a do-it-yourself situation, so you’ll both need to hire lawyers.)

That may be the best of bad options if your brother won’t see reason. Being a landlord involves considerable hassle and liability. You shouldn’t be forced into such a business — or any business — with a family member.

You can use the threat of legal action as a bargaining chip, since you both will net a lot less from your inheritance once the court gets involved. It makes much more sense for your brother to agree to a sale or get a mortgage to buy you out. Let’s hope he comes to that conclusion as soon as possible.

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.

Q&A: Mother-daughter drama and the financial ties that bind

Dear Liz: My mother is turning 92 this month. Due to a dispute, my mother amended her will last year and stated that my inheritance had to be used for a certain purpose.

My brother sent me the amendment and told me he will enforce my mother’s wishes. He also told me that I had to send a letter to him after my mother dies if I do not want anything from her trust. Is this accurate?

I want to put it in writing before my mother dies that I do not want a penny from her trust. I want to be completely estranged from my family and their control. Do I need a lawyer to do this, and do I have to wait until her death to put this in writing?

Answer: Consider showing the email to an experienced estate planning attorney to find out how much actual control your mother will have from beyond the grave. There may be workarounds that you (and your mother) haven’t considered.

If you decide you don’t want the money after her death, you can “disclaim” it in the letter your brother described. While it may seem more satisfying to make the point while your mother is still alive, you cannot force her to disinherit you any more than she can force you to take the money if you don’t want it.

Q&A: The ins and outs of inherited IRAs

Dear Liz: I have questions about inherited IRAs. A friend has designated me and three others as beneficiaries of her IRA. Is this to be considered community property with my husband? How can I inherit this as “sole and separate property”? Must taxes be paid on this? Also, may I give gifts of cash to relatives beforehand rather than naming them as recipients of my IRA and burdening them with taxes? If I do not name survivors to my IRA, what happens to my hard-earned money after I die?

Answer: Inheritances are considered separate property in every state, including community property states. If you commingle the funds — by depositing a withdrawal in a jointly held checking account, for example — then that money potentially becomes community property. You should consult a tax pro or financial planner about the rules governing non-spouse inheritors, since they’re somewhat complicated. You’ll pay income taxes on withdrawals from regular IRAs you inherit, but typically not from Roths.

You’re welcome to give anyone as much as you want, and they won’t have to pay taxes on the gift. You could owe taxes if you give away enough money, but that’s unlikely. You have to file a gift tax return if you give more than $15,000 per recipient in a given year, but you won’t actually pay gift taxes until the amounts you give away over that annual exclusion limit exceed your lifetime limit, which is currently $11.2 million.

If you’re concerned about taxes, though, naming people as IRA beneficiaries is often a smarter tax move than not doing so and having your estate inherit the money.

If your estate is the beneficiary, the money typically would have to be paid out to your estate’s heirs — and taxed — faster than if specific people were named. Your heirs might have to empty the account within five years, or the IRA custodian may opt to distribute the whole amount to the estate in one taxable distribution. Naming people, on the other hand, may allow the option of stretching the IRA, which means taking distributions over their lifetimes. The tax-deferred money that remains in the account can continue to grow. This is another topic to discuss with your advisor.

Q&A: Their kids are spendthrifts. How do parents protect them with a trust?

Dear Liz: My wife (71) and I (68) have been diligent savers our entire lives. We have accumulated IRA assets of approximately $2 million along with a house and other assets. Our total estate is under $10 million. We have two adult children in their 20s who did not inherit the saving gene. My question is: Does a trust exist that would maintain the IRA’s tax-deferred status, make required minimum distributions to our kids and include appropriate spendthrift provisions? Also, would the distributions be based on our life expectancies or on theirs?

Answer: Yes, you can create a spendthrift trust and name it as the beneficiary of your IRAs. Your children could be named beneficiaries of the trust. Required minimum distributions for inherited IRAs would be based on the elder child’s life expectancy. Your children would not be able to “invade” or tap the principal.

A spendthrift trust would not only prevent your kids from blowing through any money left in the IRAs. It also would prevent creditors from getting the money in case of bankruptcy. In many states, inherited IRAs are vulnerable to creditor claims.

Here’s the thing, though: This is a question you should be asking your estate planning attorney. If you don’t have one, you need to get one. People with small, simple estates may be able to get away with do-it-yourself planning, but yours is neither small nor simple. Trying to save money by using software or forms just isn’t a good idea. Whatever money you save may be wasted when your estate plan goes awry in ways you didn’t foresee, because you’re not an estate planning expert.

Trusts that name IRAs as beneficiaries, for example, must have special language to accomplish what you want, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Without the right language, the IRA custodian might liquidate the IRA instead. That would trigger the taxes and lump sum payouts you’re trying to avoid.

Q&A: A large foreign bequest could trigger U.S. taxes

Dear Liz: I have received an inheritance of $445,000 from a relative who died out of the country. Do I have to pay income tax on this money?

Answer: If you inherited from someone who was a U.S. citizen who lived abroad, then that person’s estate may be subject to U.S. estate taxes. The estate would have to be quite large, though. In 2017, estates worth less than $5.49 million per person were exempt from the tax. In 2018, the amount was raised to $11.18 million.

If you had paid any taxes on your inheritance to a foreign government, you could take a tax credit on your U.S. tax return for that amount.

Otherwise, you probably won’t owe any taxes. The federal government and most states don’t levy inheritance taxes on people who receive bequests. The exceptions are Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which do levy taxes on inheritances. All exempt spouses, and some exempt other immediate relatives.

Q&A: How to cut back after spending a windfall

Dear Liz: I inherited a substantial amount of money when a relative died. I put most of it in retirement funds, but as a few stray accounts were found, sometimes I just deposited them in my bank account and lived comfortably on $1,000 to $2,000 over my normal income. I have no debt, but I’ve grown accustomed to this extra cash. What’s the best way to reel back into a lifestyle I can afford on my $62,000 annual salary?

Answer: Those windfalls represented a substantial increase to your regular income, so cutting back may be painful. It’s so much easier to ramp up our lifestyles than to crank them back.

Start by tracking your spending. Once you understand your patterns, you can figure out where to cut back.

Don’t automatically assume that the luxuries you were able to buy with the extra money are now off limits. If you traveled more and enjoyed it, for example, that should still have a place in your budget. You could cut elsewhere to make sure travel is part of your life. If some of your spending didn’t bring you much joy, though, pay attention to that as well. You may have started eating out more only to find your health suffered, or you didn’t enjoy it that much, and you’d be fine doing that less often.

Your goal with any spending plan should be identifying which expenditures are important to you and which aren’t — then reducing the latter so you can have more of the former.

When your parents die broke

Blogger John Schmoll’s father left a financial mess when he died: a house that was worth far less than the mortgage, credit card bills in excess of $20,000_and debt collector s who insisted the son was legally obligated to pay what his father owed.

Fortunately, Schmoll knew better.

“I’ve been working in financial services for two decades,” says Schmoll, an Omaha, Nebraska, resident who was a stockbroker before starting his site, Frugal Rules. “I knew that I wasn’t responsible.”

Baby boomers are expected to transfer trillions to their heirs in coming years. But many people will inherit little more than a pile of bills. In my latest for the Associated Press, what to do when your parents leave behind debt.

Q&A: Adding daughter to home could create a tax burden

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 80 and we are contemplating adding our 56-year-old daughter as a co-owner and borrower to our home. The house is now valued at $600,000 and our mortgage balance is $196,000.

If it is advisable, and I am able to do this, will it prevent the house going into probate when my wife and I have passed on? Because my daughter will be the sole beneficiary of our assets, is a will or living trust required?

Answer: Please don’t do this without consulting an estate planning attorney — who will most likely tell you not to do this.

You can’t add your daughter to the mortgage without refinancing the loan. Adding your daughter to the deed means she would lose the valuable “step up” in tax basis that would otherwise happen after your deaths.

If she’s made a co-owner, she could be subject to capital gains taxes on all the appreciation that happened on her share. That tax burden essentially would disappear if she were to inherit the home instead.

How you should bequeath the home to her depends on where you live. In most states, probate — the court process that typically follows a death — isn’t that bad.

However, in some states, such as California or Florida, probate can be lengthy, expensive and worth avoiding. It can be worth investing in an attorney to draw up a living trust.

Another option in many states, including California, is a “transfer-on-death” or beneficiary deed, which allows you to sign and record a deed now that doesn’t transfer until your death. You can revoke the deed or sell the property at any time.

Florida doesn’t have transfer-on-death deeds, according to self-help site Nolo.com, but the state offers something similar called an “enhanced life estate” or “Lady Bird” deed.

But again, discuss this with a qualified estate planning attorney before proceeding.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to responsibly handle an inheritance. Also in the news: 7 questions to ask before selling a stock, how to create your own pension, and why 35% of college seniors don’t know what their student loan repayments will be.

How to Responsibly Handle an Inheritance
Don’t run out and buy a sports car just yet.

Selling a Stock? Ask 7 Questions First
What you need to know.

How to Create Your Own Pension
Filling in the gap.

35% of college seniors don’t know what their student loan repayments will be
That’s an alarming number.