Q&A: What is the capital gains tax, and how big a bite does it take?

Dear Liz: We own stocks with enormous capital gains — as in, six figures or more. The tax would be a lot. Any advice on how to limit the tax bite? Our income consists of Social Security and a teacher’s pension.

Answer: Capital gains taxes may be less of a problem than you fear. If your taxable income as a married couple is less than $83,350 in 2022, your federal tax rate on long-term capital gains is zero. (Long-term capital gains apply to profits on stocks held one year or more.) If your taxable income is between $83,350 and $517,200, your federal capital gains tax rate is 15%.

In addition, you may owe state taxes. California, for example, doesn’t have a capital gains tax rate and instead taxes capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income.

Capital gains aren’t included when determining your taxable income, by the way, but they are included in your adjusted gross income, which can affect other aspects of your finances. A big capital gain could determine whether you can qualify for certain tax breaks, for example, and could inflate your Medicare premiums. That’s why it’s important to get good tax advice before selling stocks with big gains.

A tax pro can discuss strategies that might reduce a tax bill, such as offsetting gains with capital losses by selling any stocks that have lost value since you purchased them. You also could consider donating appreciated shares to qualifying charities. If you itemize your deductions, you can deduct the fair market value of these shares. The write-off is typically limited to 30% of your adjusted gross income for the year, although if you donate more you can carry forward the excess deduction for up to five years.

All this assumes that these shares aren’t held in retirement accounts. Withdrawals from retirement accounts are typically taxed as ordinary income and don’t benefit from the more favorable capital gains rates. If the stocks are in an IRA and you’re at least 70½, however, you could make qualified charitable distributions directly to nonprofits and the distributions wouldn’t be included in your income. Again, this is something to discuss with a tax pro before taking action.

Q&A: Taxes on retirement account withdrawals

Dear Liz: I would love to give my grandchildren money, but I don’t want to pay the income tax on withdrawals from my IRA or 401(k). Will they get it tax-free when I die?

Answer: Unfortunately, no.

Withdrawals from retirement accounts are generally taxable, whether the person making the withdrawals is the original contributor or an heir. Furthermore, non-spouse beneficiaries of retirement accounts generally must withdraw the money within 10 years.

Q&A: Understanding the gift tax

Dear Liz: I am 83 and have always been employed and a regular saver. I find myself in the unusual position of having amassed a considerable estate and, barring a financial or medical catastrophe, probably having more assets than I will use in my lifetime. Of course these assets will pass to my wife or other heirs on my death, but I would like to help them now. I am considering passing on monies to my sons and grandchildren. I find it hard to believe, but is it correct that I can give up to a total of $15,000 per year ($30,000 for a husband and wife) to my children and grandchildren in a given calendar year without federal or state tax implications for either party? Also, does the recipient need to be a close relative for this transaction to take place without creating a tax liability for either entity?

Answer: Right now you can give away millions of dollars without owing gift taxes. Gifts are tax-free to the recipient, and there’s no requirement that they be a relative.

The annual gift exemption limit of $15,000 is how much you can give away per recipient without having to file a gift tax return. You and your wife together could give $30,000 to as many people as you wanted without having to file such a return. If you have two married sons who have three children each, you and your wife could give each family of five $150,000 or a total of $300,000 without having to file a gift tax return.

Gift taxes aren’t due until the amount you give away over the annual limit exceeds the lifetime gift and estate exemption limit, which currently is $11.7 million per person.

Given your age and affluence, you should be working with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure your assets go where you want after your death. The attorney can discuss smart gifting strategies for your individual circumstances.

Q&A: Gift taxes vs. estate taxes

Dear Liz: A reader recently asked about passing a $500,000 inheritance to their children. You mentioned the option of disclaiming, or refusing the inheritance so that it would go to their kids. You wrote, “If you decide not to disclaim and later give the entire $500,000 to your kids, you wouldn’t have to pay gift taxes until you gave away considerably more. Plus, gifts are tax free to the recipients.” Are you possibly mixing up gifting and inheriting? As I understand it, gifting to your kids is limited to something like $15,000 per parent per kid. Unless you have a huge family, that’s not going to add up to $500,000 of tax-free giving.

Answer: Many people get confused about how gift taxes work. The gift and estate tax systems are intertwined, causing further confusion.

There’s no limit on how much you can give away during your lifetime: You can give as much money as you want to as many people as you want. If you give more than $15,000 to any one recipient in a given year, however, you’re required to file a gift tax return. That doesn’t mean you owe gift taxes.

The amounts over $15,000 count against your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption, which is currently $11.7 million per person. So if you give someone $20,000, the extra $5,000 would be deducted from your $11.7-million lifetime exemption. Only after you exhausted that lifetime exemption would you owe gift taxes.

Q&A: How to pass on inheritance to your children

Dear Liz: I may inherit $500,000 but do not necessarily need the money for my retirement. Is there a way to pass that inheritance, or a part of it, to my two children without incurring a taxable event for myself or for them? I may want to ask my parents to add that to their trust or will.

Answer:
You can “disclaim” or refuse to accept all or part an inheritance. If you do so correctly, the assets will pass to the next beneficiary as dictated by the estate documents (or by state law, in the absence of a will or living trust). If you think you’ll want this option, definitely discuss this with your parents and their estate planning attorney so the documents can be set up properly.

Keep in mind that few families have enough wealth to be affected by gift or estate taxes. Only people who give away millions of dollars in their lifetime have to pay gift taxes, for example. If you decide not to disclaim and later give the entire $500,000 to your kids, you wouldn’t have to pay gift taxes until you gave away considerably more. Plus, gifts are tax free to the recipients.

Gift and estate laws are always subject to change, so definitely consult a tax pro before making any decision regarding either.

Q&A: Ask a tax pro before Roth conversion

Dear Liz: I’m almost 70, still working, and I’ve got a decent-size IRA as well as a 403(b) that I plan to move to an IRA when I retire. Because I have a pension and other investments, I don’t think I’ll ever need the money in the IRA and 403(b). Should I convert to a Roth now so my kids (31 and 28) won’t have to pay taxes when they inherit it? I’ve got the cash to cover the taxes for the Roth conversion.

Answer: That would be a generous move, but you should consult a tax pro to make sure you understand the implications.

As you know, converting a pre-tax retirement account such as an IRA, 401(k) or a 403(b) to a Roth IRA can generate a sizable income tax bill. Such conversions can push you into a higher tax bracket and, if you’re on Medicare, also may increase your premiums.

You may want to spread the conversion over several years, converting just enough each year to “fill out” your tax bracket and avoid Medicare surcharges. A tax pro can help with those calculations.

Q&A: Social Security and the tax torpedo

Dear Liz: People are typically advised to wait as long as possible (full retirement age or later) to take Social Security to maximize the benefit. If a couple has low expenses and substantial pensions, wouldn’t it make sense to take Social Security earlier, to preserve retirement funds to pass on to their heirs? Social Security payments stop upon death, whereas retirement accounts are passed on to heirs.

Answer:
If your primary concern is preserving an inheritance, maximizing your Social Security payments could help you reduce how much you have to withdraw from retirement funds in the long run.

Starting early also could make you more susceptible to what’s known as the tax torpedo, which is a sharp increase in marginal tax rates due to how Social Security is taxed when someone receives other income. People who only receive Social Security don’t face the torpedo, and higher-income people probably can’t avoid it, but middle-income people may be able to lessen the hit by delaying Social Security and drawing from their retirement funds instead.

One way to preserve assets for heirs is to convert traditional retirement accounts to Roth IRAs. This requires paying taxes on the conversions, but then you wouldn’t face required minimum distributions on the Roth accounts.

Calculating the best course can be difficult. You can pay $20 to $40 to use sophisticated claiming software such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security to model various options, or consider consulting with a fee-only advisor.

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.