Q&A: This spouse wants to keep an inheritance secret from the other spouse. Here’s a better idea

Dear Liz: A good friend is leaving me money from her IRA after she dies. I have asked that the gift be designated as “sole and separate property” to me. As I am married and file joint state and federal taxes, can this money be kept separate for my use only? I prefer that my spouse not be made aware of this as they have different ideas about how to use our money.

Answer: Inheritances can be kept as separate property even in community property states where other assets acquired during marriage are considered jointly owned. Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

An inherited IRA, however, would be tough to keep secret if you file taxes jointly with your spouse. You’ll be required to take yearly minimum distributions to empty the account within 10 years, and those withdrawals will be taxed as income.

Few couples are entirely on the same page about money, but keeping financial secrets from each other generally isn’t the best way to cope with these differences. Instead, many people find it helpful to have some “no questions asked” money that they can spend as they please without consulting their partner.

Q&A: Another view of house bequest

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about a mother who gave her home to her two children shortly before she died. You wrote that when a home is gifted, the recipients also get the original owner’s tax basis and thus there is no step up in tax basis at death. However, if the mother continued to live in the home and didn’t pay rent, an argument could be made that it wasn’t a real gift and the home should be included in her estate at death. Then the children could get the step up in basis and not owe capital gains taxes when they sell.

Answer: The estate tax experts at Wolters Kluwer tax research firm agree that if the mother continued to live in the house, IRS Code Sec. 2036(a)(1) could apply, “assuming that there was an express or implied agreement between the mother and the children that she would live in the home rent-free until her death.” Then the fair market value of the home could be included in the gross estate and the children would receive a step up in basis at the mother’s death.

A similar argument could be made if the mother had added the children as joint tenants and continued to live rent-free in the home until death.

Making such arguments to the IRS might require hiring knowledgeable tax and legal help, however. Plus, adding children to home deeds can create other problems. The children’s creditors could go after the house, for example, and transfers of home ownership can complicate Medicaid eligibility.

It would probably be much more cost effective to get tax and legal advice before changing a home’s deed than to hope your heirs prevail against the IRS afterward.

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.

Q&A: Capital gains on inherited property

Dear Liz: You recently advised the heir to a triplex that they’d have to pay capital gains tax if they sell the property, but if they keep it and bequeath to their children, there would be no capital gains for the children. How does that work?

Answer: The original letter writer inherited the property from a parent in 2007. The inherited property got a favorable “step up” in tax basis to the fair market value at the date of the parent’s death. As a result, all the appreciation that happened during the parent’s lifetime was never taxed.

If the heir sells the property, however, the heir will face capital gains taxes on appreciation since 2007. If the heir holds the property until death, the property will once again get a tax basis step up to the market value at that point. The appreciation that happened during the heir’s lifetime won’t be taxed.

Q&A: Estate taxes on house bequests

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about the capital gains tax implications when someone sells a house they’ve been given, versus one they’ve inherited. Would you elaborate on the estate ramifications for the donor if that person has a large estate? Would their estate pay tax on the gift?

Answer: Few people have to worry about either gift or estate taxes, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment. But large gifts can potentially reduce the amount a wealthy donor can pass on to heirs tax free after death.

That’s because the gift and estate tax systems are combined. Gifts over the annual exclusion amount — which in 2023 is $17,000 per recipient — reduce the donor’s lifetime gift and estate tax exemption, which in 2023 is $12,920,000.

Let’s say a donor gives a $1-million house to a friend. The amount in excess of the $17,000 annual limit, or $983,000, is deducted from the donor’s lifetime limit. If the donor died in 2023, the amount of their estate in excess of $11,937,00 would be subject to estate taxes. (Donors only owe gift taxes after they give away so much that they exhaust that lifetime limit.)

Receiving assets as a gift also means the recipient may face more taxes than if they had inherited the property.

The previous column mentioned that when someone inherits a home, the house’s tax basis is “stepped up” to the current market value. That means the appreciation that occurred during the previous owner’s lifetime isn’t subject to tax.

If someone is given a house by a still-living donor, different rules apply. There’s no step up in value. The recipient gets the donor’s tax basis, which is typically what the donor paid for the home, plus any qualifying improvements.

When the house is sold, that basis is deducted from the proceeds to determine potentially taxable profit. The recipient could face capital gains taxes on the appreciation that happened since the original owner bought the house.

On the other hand, giving away assets during life is one way to control the size of a potentially taxable estate, says Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell. Once the house is given away, for example, its future appreciation won’t increase the donor’s estate.

Anyone with an estate large enough to worry about these taxes should, of course, consult an estate planning attorney about the best strategies for their situation.

Q&A: How to give away your house

Dear Liz: I want to make sure a close friend of mine gets my house after I pass away. Which is better tax-wise for this friend, adding her to my deed or leaving the house to her in my will? My fear of leaving it to her in my will is that a family member may try to contest the will. While I will leave my family member money in my will, I want to make sure that the house goes to my friend.

Answer: If you add your friend to the deed, you’re making a gift of the home to her during your lifetime. That means if she ever sells the house, she could owe taxes on the appreciation that happened since you purchased the home. If you bequeath the home to her, on the other hand, the gains that occur during your lifetime won’t be taxed. You can leave her the home via a will, a living trust or, in many states, a transfer-on-death deed. (You can read more about this option in the next section.)

If you’re concerned about someone fighting your decision, please get appropriate legal advice. Estate planning can get complicated, and most people would benefit from an attorney’s help, but that’s especially true if you have contentious relatives.

Q&A: Mom gave them her house before she died. Why that’s bad

Dear Liz: My mother gave her house to my brother and me in 2011 by quitclaim deed. My brother lived in the house with her until she passed in 2018, and he continues to live there. He wants to buy my half of the home, and I am wondering what my taxes may be because I am not purchasing another home with my proceeds. Since this was a gift, do these things apply? The home is valued at $500,000 so my half is worth $250,000.

Answer: Your tax bill will be based on what your mother paid for the home originally, plus any qualifying home improvements she made over the years. That is what’s known as the home’s tax basis, and it will be subtracted from the sale proceeds to determine your potentially taxable capital gain.

Let’s say your mother originally paid $100,000 for the house and remodeled the kitchen for $50,000, for a total basis of $150,000. When she gave you and your brother the house, you each received half of that basis, or $75,000. If your brother pays you $250,000, you would subtract $75,000 from those proceeds for a capital gain of $175,000.

The federal tax rate on capital gains ranges from 0% to 20% based on income, but most people pay 15%. If your state and city assess capital gains or other taxes, you’d owe those as well.

You don’t qualify for the home sale exclusion that allows many home sellers to avoid taxation on home sale profits up to $250,000. To get the exclusion, you must own and live in the home at least two of the previous five years.

It doesn’t matter that you don’t plan to buy another home; the tax law that allowed people to roll home sale profits into another home went away decades ago.

Your tax bill might have been substantially reduced if your mother had bequeathed the home to you and your brother, rather than giving it before her death. If she’d left it to you in a will or living trust, at her death the tax basis would have been “stepped up” to the home’s current fair market value.

If the home was worth $450,000 at her death, for example, you and your brother would have a tax basis of $225,000 each. If he paid you $250,000, your taxable gain would have been just $25,000.

You might be able to spread out the tax bill if your brother is willing to pay you over time rather than buy you out all at once, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

That would be one of several issues you should discuss with a tax pro before proceeding. A big capital gain can affect other aspects of your taxes and may require you to make estimated quarterly payments to avoid penalties for underpayment. A tax pro can advise you about what to expect and how to pay what you owe.

Q&A: The rules have changed on inherited IRAs. Here’s what you need to know

Dear Liz: My husband and I have a combination of traditional and Roth IRAs naming our children and grandchildren as beneficiaries. With the passage of the Secure Act requiring distribution of inherited IRAs within 10 years, we want to revise our plan of leaving all of the investments to our children, as such inherited income would affect their tax bracket also. Do you have recommendations to alter the inherited IRAs to avoid this issue? Our annual fixed income puts us at the top of our tax bracket, meaning we usually cannot manage a traditional IRA to Roth conversion.

Answer: The Secure Act dramatically limited “stretch IRAs,” which allowed people to draw down an inherited IRA over their lifetimes. Now most non-spouse inheritors must empty the accounts within 10 years if they inherited the IRA in 2020 or later.

There are some exceptions if an heir is disabled, chronically ill or not more than 10 years younger than the IRA owner, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. These “eligible designated beneficiaries” can use the old stretch rules, as can spouses. Minor children of the IRA owner can put off withdrawals until age 21. At that point, the 10-year rule applies.

If you had a potential heir who qualifies, you could consider naming them as the beneficiary of a traditional IRA and leaving the Roth money to the other heirs. (The IRA withdrawals will be taxable while the Roth withdrawals won’t.) Or you could leave the IRA to the children in lower tax brackets and the Roth to those in higher tax brackets.

If you’re trying to divide your estate equally, though, these approaches could vastly complicate matters because the balances in the various accounts could be quite different. Plus, predicting anyone’s future tax brackets can be tough.

Another approach is to name your children along with your spouse as the primary beneficiary of your IRA. That way, the children would get 10 years to spend down this first chunk of your IRA money after you die. When your survivor dies, they would get another 10 years to spend down the remainder, giving them 20 years of tax-deferred growth.

Alternately, you could focus on spending down the IRA to preserve other assets for your kids. The stretch IRA rules encouraged people to preserve their IRAs, but now it may make more sense to focus on passing down assets such as stock or real estate that would get a valuable “step up” in tax basis at your death.

Converting IRAs to Roths is another potential strategy for those willing and able. In essence, you’re paying the tax bill now so your heirs won’t have to pay taxes later (although they’ll still have to drain the account within 10 years). It may be possible to do partial conversions over several years to avoid getting pushed into the next tax bracket.

There are a few other approaches that involve costs and tradeoffs, such as setting up a charitable remainder trust that can provide beneficiaries with income. These are best discussed with an estate planning attorney who can assess your situation and give you individualized advice.

Q&A: Taxes on trust’s income

Dear Liz: My father passed away last year leaving an estate that will make us comfortable through the foreseeable future. His holdings are mostly securities that are traded either on the NYSE or the Nasdaq. From our investments, we currently have non-earned income of between $75,000 and $100,000 annually without any other income. After estate taxes are paid for my father’s estate, the annual yield (mostly dividends) will be in the $225,000 to $250,000 range. My question for you is should we keep my father’s holdings within his trust and let the trust pay the taxes on the income, or should we take the income and pay the taxes ourselves?

Answer: Tax rates on trusts are notoriously high. If you have a choice, you probably would want to pay the taxes yourself rather than letting the trust do so. The question is whether you have a choice, and that will be determined by the wording of your father’s trust, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell says.

Speaking of estate planning attorneys, you need to hire one, along with a tax pro and a fee-only financial planner, so you can get solid, personalized advice on questions like this. You already had substantial income, and you just inherited an estate worth multiple millions, so you’re long past the point when doing it yourself makes sense.

Q&A: Did this child get ripped off?

Dear Liz: My niece’s father remarried when she was a child. Her father and her stepmother bought a house as community property in California. Ten years later, her father died. Not long after that, her stepmother died. The stepmother had no children, and my niece was the only child of her father’s. The stepmother’s niece took the house and sold it, and kept all the proceeds. Was my niece entitled to any of the proceeds?

Answer: Your niece needs to consult an experienced attorney, because the answer depends on a number of factors.

Estate planning attorney Jennifer Sawday of Long Beach points to California Probate Code Section 6402.5, which could give your niece priority over other heirs for the property’s proceeds — but only if the facts line up. If the stepmother died no later than 15 years after the father, didn’t remarry, didn’t have children, didn’t put the home in a trust and didn’t make a will after the father died, then the California probate court could consider your niece an heir, Sawday says.

That’s a whole lot of ifs, and your niece will need expert advice to proceed.