Q&A: Tax pitfalls of a house gift

Dear Liz: I have a friend whose mom gave him and his sibling her house a few months before she died. They sold it right away. He got a 1099-S tax form and is confused about what the capital gains are. Technically there were none because they sold it right after she died.

Answer: Ouch. If your friend and his sibling had inherited the home after the mother died, you would be right — there would be little or no capital gains, because the house would receive a new value for tax purposes on the day the mother died. That “step up” to the current market value would mean no taxes would be owed on all the appreciation that occurred during the mother’s lifetime.

But that favorable tax break happens only when property is transferred after death. Instead, the mother gave the house to her children during her lifetime. That means they got her tax basis as well — essentially what she paid for the house, plus any qualifying home improvements. They will owe capital gains tax on the difference between that basis and the net amount they realized from the sale (the sale proceeds minus any selling costs).

It’s unfortunate the mother didn’t consult a tax pro before transferring the home. Urge your friend to do so now because there may be ways to reduce (but not eliminate) the tax bill that resulted.


  1. But if Mom retained a life estate when she gifted her home, there would be a basis step-up.