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.

Q&A: Withdrawals from an inherited 401(k)

Dear Liz: A relative inherited a 401(k) as a listed beneficiary, and it was simply rolled over into an IRA in her name. Now another family member wants some of the money. The relative keeps trying to explain that if she pulls out any or all of the money, it will be taxed and reduce the amount available if she did want to share it. She is already retired and doesn’t need to use the money. She wants to keep it as part of her joint estate with her spouse, who could possibly use it later to pay off their mortgage. Wouldn’t she be foolish to pull the money out just because another family member thinks he should get some of it?

Answer: Your relative needs to talk to a tax professional.

Required minimum distribution rules prevent people from keeping money in retirement accounts indefinitely, and the rules recently changed regarding inherited retirement accounts. Your relative needs to understand the rules that apply to her, since failing to follow those rules can incur hefty penalties. Exactly how those rules apply depends on when she inherited the money and her relationship to the deceased.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019 eliminated the so-called stretch IRA, which allowed non-spouse beneficiaries to minimize distributions so that inherited retirement accounts could continue to grow tax deferred for decades. Now, non-spouse beneficiaries are typically required to drain the account within 10 years of the original owner’s death. These rules apply to retirement accounts inherited after Dec. 31, 2019. Even if she inherited the money earlier, she would still need to begin distributions at some point. Failing to make these required distributions incurs a tax penalty equal to 50% of the amount that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.

Of course, just because she has to withdraw the money and pay taxes on it does not mean she has to cave to the family member. The withdrawals are hers to spend, invest, share or save as she wishes.

Q&A: Dad didn’t trust banks. How to handle the hoard he left behind

Dear Liz: My father was eccentric and given to conspiracy theories. He didn’t trust banks or the stock market and invested the bulk of his money in gold coins and bars. We are talking millions of dollars at current gold prices. My parents set up a living trust, so when my mother dies, I am confident the gold will be distributed equitably to myself and my siblings, without a lot of hassle in probate. But I have no idea how to convert all that gold into a more liquid investment like an IRA or money market fund. How do I do it and not be overwhelmed with fees and taxes?

Answer: Let’s hope the gold is safely stored and properly insured. It would be a shame if burglars walked away with your inheritance.

If your mother’s estate is large enough to owe estate taxes, the estate will pay those — not the heirs. (The current exemption is more than $11 million per person, so very few estates owe this tax.)

Under current law, the gold will receive a new, “stepped-up” value for tax purposes on the day your mother dies, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. You should note the price of gold on that day, using a reliable gold pricing site, and print out the information for future tax purposes, Sawday said.

Once you receive the gold, you can take it to a precious metals exchange and cash it in. If the price you get is higher than the price of gold on the day your mother died, you would have a taxable capital gain. If the price is lower, you would have a capital loss. You wouldn’t owe any taxes and could use the loss to offset capital gains elsewhere or, if you don’t have gains, as much as $3,000 of income per year until the loss is exhausted.

You can deposit the cash in a bank account, or open a brokerage account and choose your investments from there. Those investments might include a money market fund as well as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and so on.

An IRA is a type of retirement account, not an investment, and requires you to have earned income to contribute. The contribution limit is $6,000 this year, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older, so you wouldn’t be able to put much of your inheritance into an IRA in any case.

An excellent use of some of this cash would be to hire a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner who can help guide you on how to invest the money wisely and with an eye to minimizing taxes.

Q&A: A sudden death brings a financial quandary

Dear Liz: My son suddenly passed away and his $1-million life insurance policy was awarded to me, his mother. I want the money to be divided equally between his two children for future use. They are 18 and 15 now. What financial vehicle should I use? The funds are in my money market account just waiting to be placed into something.

Answer: Please use some of the money to pay for individualized counsel from advisors who are fiduciaries. Fiduciary means the advisor is required to put your best interests first. Most advisors are not fiduciaries but you can find financial planners who are through the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network, the Garrett Planning Network and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners.

The vehicle or vehicles you use for the money will depend on your goals and how you want to distribute the funds over time. You’ll need good advice about how to invest, minimize taxes and incorporate the money into your own estate plan. Distributing money to your grandchildren can trigger the need to file gift tax returns, although you wouldn’t actually owe gift taxes until you’d given away millions of dollars.

Your son may have chosen you as his beneficiary because he trusted you to do right by his children. Or he may not have updated his beneficiaries since applying for the policy. (More than a few ex-spouses have wound up with life insurance proceeds because the policy owner didn’t update the beneficiaries after the divorce.) It’s a good idea to check the beneficiaries on any life insurance once a year or after any major life change to make sure the money is still going where you want.

Q&A: Tax consequences of giving versus bequeathing

Dear Liz: Someone who expects to be an executor recently wrote to you about a plan to distribute individual pieces of art to family members. Your response addressed the executor’s responsibility to determine the art’s worth before doing so. You also suggested having the parent designate what was to go to whom. What would the consequences be of the parent giving the pieces of art to the intended recipient prior to death? My mother did both; i.e., gave some to me and some to my sister prior to her death, and designated others to be distributed following her death. She had personal rather than financial reasons for doing it this way.

Answer: Let’s say your mom bought a painting from a struggling artist for $500. Later, the artist became famous and the painting’s value rose to $500,000. If she gave you the painting and you sold it, you would have to use the amount she paid — her basis — to determine the taxable profit ($499,500).

If she bequeathed the painting to you instead, the artwork would get a new tax basis which is usually its value on the day she died. You could sell the painting for $500,000 and not owe a dime in taxes.

Few people have artworks that experience that kind of appreciation — or any appreciation, for that matter. The issue of basis most often comes up when people are transferring real estate, stocks or other assets in transactions that are reported to the IRS. If your mom did have valuable works, though, transferring them through bequests could be advisable.

Q&A: Unloading collections while you’re still alive

Dear Liz: You recently advised someone who didn’t know whom to select to administer a living trust because the person has no spouse, children or other living relatives. This person mentioned they had collectibles. An additional thing they should consider doing is donating the collection while alive to an archive, museum or other appropriate organization that would be interested in receiving it or in selling the items to support their mission. That way they won’t end up in the trash but will be handled appropriately. There also might be a tax advantage to this donation.

Answer: That’s an excellent suggestion. Here’s another good one:

Dear Liz: Selling off collectibles is a long, time-consuming undertaking. My husband was a huge collector and we did not want to leave that burden to our son. So when he retired, he started selling things on EBay. It was a lot of work and took him years. (We checked with our son to make sure he didn’t want the things he sold.)

Answer: What an excellent retirement project as well as a huge gift to your son. The first step is being willing to part with a collection while alive. Those who are ready to do so may be in a better position to find eager buyers than anyone who inherits the collection.

Collectors who don’t have the time or energy for this process can consider hiring someone to do it. Other alternatives include selling to a dealer, either outright or through consignment, or hiring an auction house, if the collection is valuable enough to attract bidders’ interest.

Q&A: How the COVID-19 pandemic is delaying inheritances

Dear Liz: My mother passed away in March due to old age. She lived in California. I live out of state and couldn’t travel because of the pandemic. My siblings took care of her burial. Her will named me executor. I’d like to know how long I have to settle her estate and whether I will need an attorney. Her house was her major asset and was assessed at $400,000. There’s no mortgage. The house goes to an older brother and me, and two grandsons each get $10,000. I want to make sure the grandsons get their inheritances as soon as possible.

Answer: Your grandsons will have to wait awhile. California probate is slow at the best of times, with a typical case taking eight to 12 months or more. Pandemic-related court closures are adding many months to the process. Courts are slowly reopening but dealing with a significant backlog of filings.

Your mother’s will should be filed with the appropriate county within 30 days of her death and the county tax assessor should be notified within 150 days because she was a property owner, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Though most counties allow electronic filing for probate matters, it’s typically not the most user-friendly process and you may want to consult a probate attorney. The initial consultation is usually free. Hiring an attorney to handle the whole process probably won’t be cheap: By law, probate attorneys can charge 4% of the first $100,000 of the estate, 3% of the next $100,000, 2% of the next $800,000, 1% of the next $9 million, and 0.5% of the next $15 million.

Your mom could have avoided probate entirely if she’d created a revocable living trust, or if she had taken other probate-avoidance measures. In California and many other states, real estate can be passed on with a “transfer on death” deed that avoids probate. She also could have set up bank accounts and designated your grandsons as beneficiaries to avoid probate.

It’s too late now, obviously. But whatever you do, don’t jump the gun by making distributions, Sawday warned.

“If there is a will, under no circumstances should he make the cash gifts to the grandsons until the court admits the will, appoints him as executor and probate actually commences,” Sawday said.

Q&A: Taxes when inheriting a home

Dear Liz: My sister recently passed, and I acquired her home, which I’m selling (it’s now in escrow). I was looking at state tax forms for real estate transactions, and there is nowhere to check for a person who was given a home through death. Does this mean it is taxable? I was told since it was an inheritance that it was not taxable.

Answer: Technically, you weren’t given a home. You inherited it, and you’re correct that inheritances are typically not taxable. (Only six states impose inheritance taxes, and your state, California, is not one of them.) When you inherited the home, the property received what’s known as a step-up in tax basis, so that the appreciation that occurred during your sister’s lifetime is not taxed. You would owe tax only on any appreciation that occurred since you owned the property. A tax pro can help you figure out what you might owe.

Q&A: Inheriting an IRA can get messy

Dear Liz: My brother passed away at age 47. My mother was named beneficiary of his retirement account. We opened an inherited IRA under her name. Sadly, my mother recently passed away, and my father is the beneficiary of the account. Does my father open a regular IRA or inherited IRA? How would the title on the account be listed with my mother and brother deceased? Are they both listed?

Answer: Inheriting an inherited IRA complicates an already complex set of rules.

The regulations are different depending on whether the person inheriting is a spouse. Spouses can treat the inherited account as their own. They can leave the money where it is, make new contributions or transfer the funds to another retirement account they own. They also have more flexibility in how to take required minimum distributions from the account.

Non-spouse beneficiaries, like your mother, don’t have the option of treating the IRA as their own. They must set up a new inherited IRA and start distributions. Until this year, non-spouse beneficiaries could take distributions over their lifetimes. Now non-spouse beneficiaries are required to drain their inherited IRAs within 10 years.

How the account is titled is important, because improper titling can cause it to lose tax deferral and accelerate the tax bill. Let’s say your brother’s name was Tom Johnson and he died in March 2019, leaving his IRA to your mother, Mabel Johnson. A correct title for the new inherited IRA would be “Tom Johnson (deceased March 2019) Inherited IRA for the benefit of Mabel Johnson.”

Your family’s situation creates a hybrid of the two situations. Your dad would have an inherited spousal IRA, but his mandatory withdrawals would be based on your mother’s required minimum distributions, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

Your dad should open a new inherited IRA, Luscombe says. Assuming his name is Bill Johnson, the title of the inherited IRA should be “Tom Johnson (deceased March 2019) Inherited IRA for the benefit of Bill Johnson, successor beneficiary of Mabel Johnson.”

Q&A: Avoid this hidden risk to your retirement

Dear Liz: I have very low net worth and just inherited $500,000 from a cousin’s annuity. My net worth includes a $400,000 house with a $290,000 mortgage at 3.75%, IRA accounts of $65,000 and savings of $90,000. I also have a pension from which I receive $50,000 annually and from which our health insurance is paid. My husband is 72 and receives $6,000 annually from Social Security. I will turn 70 in a few months and will begin taking Social Security and tapping my IRAs. I have very little debt. What is the safest thing to do with this inheritance?

Answer: That depends on how you define “safe.”

Investments that don’t put your principal at risk typically offer returns that don’t beat inflation over time. That means your buying power is eroded. At 70, you may not think you need to worry much about inflation. But your life expectancy as a woman in the U.S. is 16.57 more years. About one-third of women your age will make it to age 90.

That doesn’t mean you have to take investment risk with this money by buying stocks, which are the one asset class that consistently outpaces inflation. But you’d be smart to have a fee-only financial planner take a look at your situation to make sure you’re investing appropriately, based on your goals.

And it’s your goal for this money that will help determine how to invest it. If you want the money to be readily available and safe from investment risk, then you could put it in an FDIC-insured, high-yield savings account paying 2% or so. Just make sure you don’t exceed FDIC limits, which typically cap insurance coverage at $250,000 per depositor, per bank. (You can stretch that coverage if you put the money in different “ownership categories,” such as individual, joint, retirement and trust accounts.) If you don’t expect to need the money for many years, investing at least some of it in bonds or stocks may be appropriate.

Also, a small reality check: Your net worth before the inheritance was $265,000, based on the figures you provided. That’s more than most people in your age bracket. Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 had a median net worth of about $224,000 in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances. That’s not to say you’re rich, but you do have more than most of your peers — especially now.