Q&A: Tax consequences of a CD bequest

Dear Liz: I currently have a certificate of deposit with what I consider a reasonably high balance. I’ve named a beneficiary in the event something were to happen to me. Would there be tax consequences for the beneficiary upon receipt?

Answer: There’s no federal inheritance tax, but six states — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — do assess inheritance taxes. Spouses are typically exempt and the tax rate is generally lower for close relatives.

Q&A: Selling a rental property? Here are the tax consequences

Dear Liz: My siblings and I are considering selling a triplex. It was bequeathed to us by our mother when she died in 2007. There is no mortgage and it is fully occupied. If we sell, my wife and I (both over 50) would get roughly $200,000, and we’d like to minimize the tax impact. We own our home free and clear and have no debt. We’d like to use this windfall to help our son buy a home. We’d also give our daughter a cash gift. We have no interest in buying another investment property using a 1031 exchange. Any suggestions to minimize our tax bill given our circumstances?

Answer: Talk to a tax pro, because selling a rental property is more complicated than selling your personal home.

You’re not eligible for the $250,000-per-person home sale profit exclusion, and in addition to paying capital gains tax you also face a depreciation recapture tax of 25%. (Depreciation is the amount of wear-and-tear you wrote off during your ownership of the property; the IRS requires you to repay that tax break when you sell.)

A big capital gain could affect other areas of your finances, such as Medicare premiums, and the pro can help you plan for that as well.

1031 exchange would allow you to defer taxes on a rental property by buying a similar replacement property.

Another solution would be to hang on to the property, continue to enjoy the rental income and bequeath your portion of it to your children when you die. Your portion will receive a favorable step-up in tax basis so that your heirs won’t owe taxes on the capital gains that occurred during your ownership. They also won’t face the tax on depreciation recapture you would otherwise owe.

But that obviously isn’t a good solution if you no longer want to be a landlord or want the cash instead. In that case, the tax pro can help you properly account for selling costs, legal fees and improvement expenses that could reduce the tax hit and may be able to suggest other ways to manage your tax bill.

Q&A: Taxes on a deceased spouse’s assets

Dear Liz: My dear friend’s husband just passed away and she is immediately selling off all his antiques through an auctioneer. Sales should net well over $100,000 this calendar year. Is there any way to offset the tax hit she will take on this? This will be on top of selling the house in the same calendar year.

Answer: Previous columns have discussed the favorable “step up” in tax basis that happens when someone dies.

Their assets, including at least half of a jointly-owned home, typically get updated to the current market value for tax purposes. Appreciation that occurred during the deceased’s lifetime is never taxed. In community property states, both halves of jointly-owned assets usually get this step up.

The auction shouldn’t generate much if any tax bill unless the antiques jump significantly in value between the date of his death and the date of the sale.

The same is true of the home sale if the friend lives in a community property state. If not, she may have potentially taxable appreciation on her half of the property. If the sale occurs within two years after the year her husband died, though, she can exclude up to $500,000 of home sale profits from her income. Otherwise she can exclude up to $250,000.

Your friend should consult a qualified tax pro who can review her specific situation and offer individualized advice.

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.

Q&A: Why you need to pay attention to your credit utilization

Dear Liz: Recently my granddaughter gave birth to twins. I’d like to put $500 into a trust for each of them to mature when they are 18. I’m hesitant to set up an education fund in case they decide not to go on to college. I would like something that includes growth and safety, the least amount of cost and minimal tax consequences. Is there something you could recommend?

Answer: A trust would be overkill, given the relatively modest amount you have to contribute. Consider instead setting up 529 college savings plans, which provide the benefits you’re seeking, including some flexibility in how the money is spent.

The money you contribute can be invested to grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified education expenses, which include costs at vocational and technical schools as well as colleges and universities. In addition, up to $10,000 per year can be used for private school tuition for kindergarten through 12th grade. If a beneficiary doesn’t use the money in their account, the balance can be transferred to another close relative. The account owner (you) also can withdraw the money at any time. You would pay taxes on any earnings plus a relatively modest 10% penalty.

Legislation passed at the end of last year offers another option: Money that’s not needed for education can be transferred to a Roth IRA, starting in 2024. After an account has been open at least 15 years, the beneficiary can start rolling money into a Roth. The amount rolled over can’t exceed the annual contribution limit (which in 2023 is $6,500), and the lifetime limit for rollovers is $35,000.

These plans are offered by the states and operated by various investment companies. You can learn more at the College Savings Plan Network.

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: Recourse when the IRS goofs

Dear Liz: Is there a “court of last resort” when dealing with the IRS and the Treasury Department? I tried to buy an I bond using my tax refund. My tax preparer checked the appropriate box on the 1040 and submitted the form 8888. No bond was sent to me and I have been sent back and forth between the Treasury and the IRS multiple times. Finally the IRS admitted it did not notify the Treasury like it should have to generate the bond and it did apologize.

The Treasury says it can’t issue the bond without the notification from the IRS, and the IRS claims there is nothing it can do to fix the problem now. Is there any recourse whereby I can get my bond? I followed all of the rules, the 1040 was correct and to tell you the truth, I am unhappy that there does not seem to be a way of righting a wrong not of my making.

Answer: Start by contacting the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which was created in part to help resolve problems like this. You’ll find it at taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov.

Also consider reaching out to your congressional representatives, who have constituent services that may be able to help.

Q&A: Don’t do this with your retirement funds — unless you want to pay tax

Dear Liz: I recently switched jobs and realized that I have multiple 401(k) accounts from prior employers over the years that need to be consolidated. When I reached out to my current employer’s 401(k) administrator to understand the rollover process, they said I would actually need to have a paper check mailed to me for each prior employer and then arrange to mail the checks to them. Liz, we are talking about four checks totaling a very substantial amount of money! They said there is “no other way” to process the rollovers. I cannot understand why we are still dealing with such an archaic process in this day and age. Should I be worried or should I just go ahead and take care of this now since I don’t seem to have much say in the process?

Answer: You should definitely be worried, and you also shouldn’t assume that your employer’s 401(k) administrator understands the options at other companies. Getting a check in the mail from an old plan is not only unsafe but triggers a 20% withholding requirement.

If you want to avoid taxes and penalties on the missing 20%, you’d have to come up with that money out of your own pocket. (If you didn’t deposit the check with the new plan or in an IRA, you’d owe taxes and potentially penalties on all of the money.)

When you contact the old plan’s administrators, ask if they can do a “direct rollover” to your new 401(k) account. Often, the transfer can be made electronically.

Even if the old plan uses a paper check and the U.S. mail to deliver the funds, you can avoid the 20% withholding requirement if the check is made out to your new account rather than to you.

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: When an online shopping money-saving scheme is tax evasion

Dear Liz: My father lives in Washington state. He often purchases higher-priced items online, has them shipped to relatives living in Oregon and picks them up later. That way he doesn’t have to pay sales tax. Is this a form of tax evasion? Does he need to pay a “use tax”? Could he (and the Oregon relatives) possibly be in any kind of legal danger? He claims it’s perfectly fine to do this because Washingtonians “do it all the time” by driving down to Oregon to do their shopping.

Answer: Yes, people do this “all the time” but it’s still a form of tax evasion.

Washington and other states with sales taxes typically have laws requiring people to pay a use tax when they bring home goods purchased in another state that either doesn’t charge sales tax or charges less. People may also owe use taxes when they purchase something from an individual who doesn’t collect sales tax. An example might be furniture purchased from a Craigslist ad.

But these laws can be difficult to enforce. While businesses can be subject to sales and use tax audits, individual taxpayers are unlikely to face the same scrutiny.