Myths about “death taxes” lead to costly mistakes

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about capital gains taxes that stemmed from two siblings selling their parents’ home. The children had been added to the parents’ deed, presumably before the parents’ death. You mentioned that the capital gains tax would have been avoided if the parents had bequeathed the home rather than gifting it during their lifetimes. Presumably bequeathing the home at death would have necessitated probate and incurred inheritance taxes. Are these costs more than offset by the stepped-up tax basis received?

Answer: Your questions illustrate exactly why no parent should add a child (or anyone else) to a home deed without discussing the issue with an estate-planning attorney first. Too often, laypeople misunderstand what’s involved in probate and make expensive mistakes trying to avoid it.

In some states, probate — the court process that typically follows death — is relatively swift and not very expensive. Trying to avoid it isn’t necessarily cost effective. In other states, including California, the process potentially can take many months and eat up a good chunk of an estate. When that’s the case, it can be prudent to take steps during life to sidestep probate at death.

There are often better ways to do so, however, than adding someone to a deed. A living trust, for example, can be a good way to avoid probate and preserve the tax benefits of bequeathing, rather than gifting, assets. Living trusts can vary in cost, but a lawyer can typically set one up for $2,000 or $3,000. If you compare that with the $25,000 or more the siblings will pay in capital gains on a relatively modest home sale, you can see that the living trust probably is a better deal.

Now let’s turn to the issue of estate taxes. If the assets left by the deceased are substantial enough to incur estate taxes, they will do so whether or not the estate goes through probate. Avoiding probate, in other words, does not avoid estate taxes. Currently, only estates worth more than $5.12 million face federal estate taxes. That limit is scheduled to drop next year to $1 million, but will still affect relatively few estates.

Get a lawyer’s advice before transferring home

Dear Liz: Your column on the tax issues that develop when parents deed their property to their children should help educate a lot of people. But sometimes this is done to reduce the parents’ assets so they will be eligible for Medicaid after the expiration of the look-back period. In this case, paying the capital gains tax is appropriate, because they are asking the state to pay potentially very large senior care bills.

Answer: Some would question whether it’s ever appropriate for seniors to deliberately impoverish themselves by transferring away assets in order to qualify for Medicaid, which pays long-term care expenses for the indigent. The “look back” period, in which states examine asset transfers before a Medicaid application, was established to discourage such maneuvers. Once again, it’s smart to get a legal opinion before transferring big assets. An elder-law attorney could weigh in on the pros and cons of Medicaid planning.

Gifting home creates unnecessary tax bill

Dear Liz: My wife and her brother are selling their parents’ home. The parents transferred the deed to their children’s names years ago. My wife should receive about $85,000 from the sale. Our yearly income (one salary; she’s a stay-at-home mom) is around $75,000. My wife is worried about capital gains taxes and wants to reinvest in another real estate property because she’s heard that that will eliminate the capital gains tax. Is that correct? I would really rather invest that money in our current home (finish the basement into a family room, update some items) and pay off our car loan than worry about another property to take care of. What do you think?

Answer: A 1031 exchange is a tax maneuver that allows owners of business or investment property to swap the real estate they have with another property, a transaction that can defer (but not necessarily eliminate) capital gains taxes.

It’s questionable whether your in-laws’ home would qualify as business or investment property, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH.

“Were the parents paying rent to the children after the title was passed to the children? If the kids owned the property and the parents were living there without paying rent, I do not think that would constitute investment property,” Luscombe said. “Perhaps if the parents were still paying upkeep expenses and real estate taxes, that might approach the equivalence of rent.”

If there’s a chance the property might qualify, your wife should consult a tax pro experienced with 1031 exchanges for details. Otherwise, she’ll need to write some good-sized checks to the tax authorities. Currently the federal capital gains tax rate is a maximum of 15%, although it will rise to 20% on Jan. 1 if Congress doesn’t reach a compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff. Add to that any state or local taxes on capital gains.

You may think of these taxes as a small price to pay compared with the risk of owning a piece of rental property. Your wife may have another concern that she has not voiced, however: She may not want this legacy from her parents to disappear into the general family budget. She may feel an obligation to preserve and try to grow the money, rather than sinking it into home improvements and other consumption. Legally, gifts and inheritances are considered separate property owned only by the spouse to whom they were given, even in community property states where most other assets are considered jointly owned.

If she wants to keep this money separate, in other words, that’s her right. It would be nice if she carved out a small chunk for family consumption, but she’s under no obligation to do so. If a 1031 exchange isn’t possible or feasible, then she could consult a fee-only planner about other ways to invest the money for the future.

By the way, it needs to be said: This tax bill was avoidable. If your in-laws had, instead of gifting the property, waited and bequeathed it at their deaths, the home would have received a so-called step-up in tax basis. Such a step-up in effect eliminates the need to pay capital gains taxes on any home price appreciation that occurred during the parents’ lives. Any parent thinking of adding a child’s name to a real estate deed should first consult an estate planning attorney to understand the ramifications, since gifting property this way can be an expensive mistake.

Home sale tax break won’t disappear

Dear Liz: My wife and I are trying to sell our home, which has been our primary residence for six years. I am very concerned about the $500,000 capital gains exclusion. As I understand it, the exclusion would mean we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on our home sale profit. But we are confused about this exemption being tied to the “Bush tax cuts” that could expire Dec. 31. If we sell our home after that, could we lose the exemption?

Answer: No. The law creating a capital gains exemption for home sales went into effect May 6, 1997. It’s not tied to the tax cuts approved during President George W. Bush’s tenure that are set to expire at the end of the year.

So people who live in a home for at least two of the previous five years will still be able to avoid paying capital gains on their first $250,000 of home sale profit (or $500,000 for a married couple).

Another tax you likely won’t have to pay is a new 3.8% levy on what’s called “net investment income.” Some emails circulating on the Internet falsely claim that the tax, which is scheduled to kick in Jan. 1, is a real estate sales tax. In reality, it’s a potential tax on home sale profits that exceed the capital gains exemption limit, as well as on other so-called unearned income, including investment and rental income.

If your home sale profit doesn’t exceed the capital gains exemption limit, you won’t owe the new tax. If your profit does exceed the limit, the excess amount would be added to your adjusted gross incomes to determine whether you’d have to pay it. The 3.8% tax would be levied only on people whose adjusted gross incomes are more than $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married couples.