Q&A: Surviving spouse’s home gains

Dear Liz: If a surviving spouse is selling the couple’s longtime home, are there any special provisions on the long-term capital gains?

Answer: When one spouse dies, their half of the home gets a new value for tax purposes. The value is “stepped up” to the current market value, so that the appreciation that happened on that half of the property is no longer taxable. In community property states, both halves of the property get this step up.

Let’s say a couple bought a home for $100,000 and that it was worth $250,000 when the first spouse died. In most states, the tax basis — what’s subtracted from the net sales price to determine potentially taxable capital gains — would rise from the original $100,000 to $175,000. The surviving spouse’s basis would remain at $50,000 while the deceased’s half would be stepped up to $125,000 (one half of the current $250,000 value). If the home was sold for $250,000, there would be $75,000 of potentially taxable capital gain.

In community property states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin — the home’s basis would get a double step-up to $250,000. If the home was sold for $250,000, there would be no potentially taxable capital gain.

Even if there is a gain from the sale, a single person can exclude up to $250,000 of home sale capital gains from their income as long as they owned and lived in the home at least two of the previous five years. Couples can exclude up to $500,000. However, widows and widowers who sell their homes within two years of their spouse’s death can take the full $500,000 exclusion.