Q&A: Here’s how taxes work on estates and inherited money

Dear Liz: Are all assets entitled to a stepped-up basis upon the death of the owner? My father died about a year ago, leaving my sister and me an estate of a little over $1 million. He had a Thrift Savings Plan that is apparently like a 401(k) for federal government employees. This is getting taxed at 37%. Also he had U.S. Savings Bonds and the interest on those is apparently taxable. I was under the impression all assets in an estate under $11 million were not taxable. Is this not correct?

Answer: That’s not correct. You’re confusing a few different types of taxes.

Estate taxes are levied on certain large estates when the owner dies, and those taxes are typically paid out of the estate. The current estate tax exemption limit is $11.7 million, up from $11.58 million last year. After 2025, the limit is scheduled to drop to $3.5 million, but even then very few estates will owe the tax.

Another type of tax is the capital gains tax. This essentially taxes the profit someone makes when they sell a stock or other asset. Capital gains tax rates are typically 15%, but they can be as low as zero or as high as 20%, depending on the seller’s income.

Inherited assets that qualify for capital gains tax treatment also can qualify for the “step up in basis” that may reduce the tax bill, sometimes dramatically. If your dad paid $10 for a stock that was worth $100 when he died, you could sell it for $105 and owe taxes only on the $5 in appreciation since his death. The $90 appreciation that occurred during his lifetime would never be taxed.

Not all assets qualify for capital gains treatment, however. Retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, are a good example.

People usually get tax breaks when they contribute and the accounts grow tax deferred. When the money comes out, however, the withdrawals are taxed as income regardless of whether it’s the original owner getting the money or the heir. Whoever makes the withdrawal pays the taxes.

Federal income rates currently range from zero to 37%. The 37% rate applies for singles with taxable income of $523,601 or more and married couples filing jointly with taxable incomes of $628,301 or more.

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