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: Taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: My wife wants to sell our home of three years for a $300,000 profit after an extensive remodel and move into our rental home. She wants to stay there for two years and then sell to take advantage of the capital gains exemption. If we do it her way, we lower our monthly mortgage payment but lose the yearly rental income of $30,000. Our income is around $130,000. Any input?

Answer: Each homeowner can exclude up to $250,000 of home sale profits from capital gains taxes if they have owned and lived in a property as their primary residence for at least two of the previous five years. Married couples can exclude up to $500,000. This tax break can be used repeatedly.

The federal capital gains tax rate is currently 15% for most people, so the full $500,000 exemption could save a seller $75,000 in federal capital gains taxes. If your state or city has an income tax, you could save there as well. California, for example, doesn’t have a capital gains tax rate, so home sale profits would be subject to ordinary income tax rates of up to 13.3%.

The math is a little different when you move into a property you’ve previously rented out, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer. Over the years, you’ve taken tax deductions for depreciation of your property. When you sell, the Internal Revenue Service wants some of that benefit back, something known as depreciation recapture.

When you sell a former rental property, some of the gain will be taxed as income, even if you’ve converted the home to personal use, Luscombe said. The maximum depreciation recapture rate is 25%.

A tax pro can help you figure out the likely tax bill. Any tax savings would be offset by the net result of a move, such as the lost rental income (minus the lower mortgage payments) and the substantial costs of selling, including real estate commissions and moving expenses.

It’s not clear if you’ve already remodeled your current home. If you haven’t, please think twice about an extensive remodel if you plan to sell, because you probably won’t get back the money you spend. Home improvement projects rarely return 100% of their cost. You’ll typically get a better return by decluttering, deep cleaning, sprucing up the yard or putting on a new coat of paint.

Q&A: Protecting home sales proceeds from taxes

Dear Liz: My friend has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is now living in a secure assisted living facility. After a year in this home, his sister finally sold his condo. Her tax person says he will take a big tax hit. I say it is totally medically ordered and he’ll need the money for his current housing ($5,000 a month) until he dies. I also question whether part of that $5,000 should be deductible because it is only ordered because of his illness. Your thoughts?

Answer: Your friend may not be able to protect all of his home sale proceeds from taxation, but he likely will be able to protect some.

If your friend lived in his condo for at least two of the previous five years before the sale, he will be able to avoid tax on up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Even if he fell short of the two-year mark, he likely would benefit from IRS rules that allow partial exemptions when the sale is due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Meanwhile, medical expenses, including some long-term care expenses, are potentially deductible if they exceed 7.5% of someone’s adjusted gross income. Assisted living expenses may qualify as deductible medical expenses if the resident is considered chronically ill, which means they cannot perform at least two activities of daily living (eating, toileting, bathing, dressing, getting in and out of bed and remaining continent) or they require supervision because of cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The personal care services must be provided according to a plan of care prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider. Typically, assisted living facilities prepare such care plans for their residents.

Q&A: Filing taxes after a spouse’s death

Dear Liz: I am writing this email on behalf of my 88-year-old dad. He wanted to ask you this question: “My wife passed away Jan. 7, 2020. In filing my 1040 income tax for 2020, am I allowed to file as a married couple or required to file as a single person?”

Answer: Your dad can use “married filing jointly” with his deceased spouse for the year of her death, assuming he didn’t remarry in that year.

If your dad claimed one or more qualifying dependents — a child, stepchild or adopted child — he might be able to file as a qualifying widower for the following two years as long as he paid more than half the cost of maintaining his home and it was the main home of the dependent or dependents. Most people your dad’s age no longer live with their kids or claim them as dependents on their tax returns. But if he did, this could preserve the larger standard deduction and other benefits of filing jointly for another couple of years.

Q&A: Paying taxes with plastic

Dear Liz: I am selling a rental property that I have owned for several years. I know I could do a 1031 exchange, which would allow me to put off the tax bill by investing in another commercial property. But I just want out. I’ll pay the capital gains tax and invest the rest of the proceeds. I am considering paying the taxes by credit card and taking on the 3% premium to get rewards points offered through the card issuer. Is this a dumb idea, or does it have some merit?

Answer: The companies that process federal tax payments have processing fees of just under 2%, not 3%. You’ll still want to make sure you get more value from your rewards than you pay in fees, and that’s not a given. If your card offers only 1.5% cash back, for example, charging your taxes doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the math changes if you can get more than 2% in rewards, or if you could use the charge to help you meet the minimum spending requirements for a new credit card with a generous sign-up bonus.

If you do charge your taxes, you’ll obviously want to pay the balance in full before incurring any interest.

Q&A: Don’t file an amended return after the stimulus tax break. The IRS is begging you

Dear Liz: You might want to inform your readers that they do not need to file an amended return if they filed before Congress passed its most recent stimulus plan, which excludes the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits. The IRS will automatically recalculate their taxes and refund the taxes paid on that amount of benefits.

Answer: In fact, the IRS is begging people not to file amended returns. (An exception, the IRS has said, is for those who the tax reduction would make newly eligible for the earned income tax credit or other tax breaks for lower income people.) The agency is still processing a backlog of returns and correspondence while issuing a third wave of stimulus payments and gearing up to send monthly child credit payments to millions of families.

You may need patience, however. The IRS has promised to refund any taxes paid on the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits earned last year, but has said the money will go out “this spring and summer.”

Q&A: IRAs and tax considerations

Dear Liz: I’ve been researching the backdoor Roth IRA and I am finding some conflicting information regarding taxes owed on the conversions. I have two sizable rollover IRAs and one small ($1,600) traditional IRA. Can I make an after-tax contribution to the traditional IRA and convert that to a Roth and pay tax only on that IRA or do I have to consider all three IRAs?

Answer:
Sorry, but you have to consider all three. The tax on your conversion will be based on the pre-tax portion of all your IRAs combined, not just the IRA where you make your contribution.

Backdoor Roths allow people to get money into a Roth when their incomes are too high to make a direct contribution. Instead, they contribute to a traditional IRA and convert that to a Roth because conversions don’t have income limits. Conversions require paying taxes proportionately on your pre-tax contributions and earnings, however, so the technique may not be advisable when you have sizable pre-tax IRAs that will trigger a large tax bill.

Q&A: A house in one state, a spouse in another. What about taxes?

Dear Liz: My husband recently took a dream job in a different state. We are renting a place there, and it is his primary residence. We own our home in the “original” state, where I live and work. We intend to keep our home for another three to four years. How will this impact our taxes? We are married, filing jointly and our income is straightforward W-2. Will we need to file as residents in both states? I know most states will credit taxes already paid on income earned in another state, but which is our “primary” residence? I may base permanently in the new state because I can work remotely. I am confused about filing jointly when each spouse lives in a different state.

Answer: Please talk to an accountant about the best way to handle your returns. In some cases, spouses who live in different states can submit their federal tax returns as “married filing jointly” while filing their respective state returns as “married filing separately.” Other times, there may be tax advantages to filing jointly in one state, or the nonresident spouse will be required to file.

If you are required to submit a return to the nonresident state, your accountant can tell you whether you qualify for credits. Alternatively, there may be a reciprocal tax agreement between states that allows nonresidents to avoid taxes if they follow certain rules.

But you’ll want to be particularly careful if you currently live in a high-tax state with a reputation for aggressive residency audits such as California, New York and Illinois.

A state auditor may decide that your husband’s move is temporary and his income is thus subject to your state’s taxes. It would be up to him to prove otherwise, and that may not be as easy as changing his voter registration. A tax pro can help guide him, and later you, on the best way to establish residency.

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: Retitling a deed after marriage

Dear Liz: Our house was titled “joint tenant with right of survivorship” after my husband inherited the property in 1998. As a same-sex couple, we were not married at the time. However, we legally married in 2013. Will one of us get the step-up in tax basis when the other passes, or do we have to retitle the house some way? We also want to avoid probate. We live in California.

Answer: As you know, California is one of the community property states that allows both halves of a property to get a step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. This double step-up can be a huge tax saver, since none of the appreciation that happened before the death is taxed. Other community property states include Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In Alaska, spouses can sign an agreement to make specific assets community property.

In contrast, in common law states, only half of the property gets the step-up to a new tax basis when one spouse dies. The other half retains its original tax basis.

Although assets acquired during a marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how they’re titled, in your case the property was acquired before marriage. The current title of joint tenants with right of survivorship would avoid probate, but it will not achieve full step-up in basis when the first spouse dies, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm Wolters Kluwer.