Q&A: Unloading a timeshare

Dear Liz: How can a timeshare owner get rid of the timeshare and claim the loss on taxes?

Answer: Timeshares typically are considered a personal asset, like a boat or a car, so the losses aren’t deductible. The best way out of a timeshare is often to give it back to the developer, if the developer will take it. You also could try to sell it on sites such as RedWeek and Timeshare Users Group. Unless your timeshare is at a high-end property, you are unlikely to recoup much and may have to pay the buyer’s maintenance fees for a year or two as an incentive.

Q&A: Escaping California’s tax auditors is tough even after leaving the state

Dear Liz: My husband and I will be trying out several different areas after the sale of our Los Angeles area house, which will be some time this summer. What happens if we end up renting in three different states? I’m under the impression that we need to be able to prove that we resided in a particular state for six months and one day in order to say we are residents of that state. Even though my husband has been retired for many years, he still does a small amount of business through a company based in Southern California. Will we be forced to pay California tax even though we are residing elsewhere?

Answer: California, like other higher-tax states, has residency auditors whose specialty is asserting that affluent people who have left the state are still legal residents and thus are subject to its taxes. The audits can be stunningly thorough, looking at everything from the doctors you visit to where your artwork and other valuable possessions are stored.

If audited, you would need to prove that you have a fixed, permanent residence elsewhere and that it’s truly your home. And yes, it’s up to the taxpayer to prove this — there’s no presumption of innocence in tax audits, says tax attorney Mark Klein, chairman of Hodgson Russ LLP in New York City. (New York is another state with notoriously hard-nosed residency auditors.)

Just leaving the state for six months and registering to vote elsewhere typically won’t be enough. You likely would need to spend substantially more time in your new “home” state than in California. Klein, who recently taught a session on establishing residency at the AICPA’s annual ENGAGE conference, tells his clients to spend at least two months in the new place for every month they spend in the old one.

Also, you should “stick the landing,” in Klein’s words. Let’s say you try to establish residency in Nevada but then move to Florida by the time California’s auditors find you. They may well decide that your Nevada stay was temporary and that you were still subject to California taxes during the time you lived in the Silver State.

Escaping the long arm of California’s tax auditors could be tough while you’re still figuring out where to live next. You’d be smart to consult a CPA experienced with California residency audits for advice on how to cut ties to the state cleanly.

Q&A: Estate tax versus inheritance tax

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that “only six states … have inheritance taxes.” My state of Oregon is not listed. Oregon certainly has an estate tax (one of the highest in the U.S.) and Washington also has one.

Answer: Many people confuse estate and inheritance taxes, but they’re not the same thing.

As the name implies, estate taxes are taxes levied on the dead person’s estate. The federal government, 12 states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) and the District of Columbia have estate taxes.

Only the six states mentioned in the previous column — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have an inheritance tax, which is levied on the person who inherits. New Jersey had an estate tax, but that was repealed in 2018, leaving Maryland as the only state with both types of tax.

Q&A: Selling an inherited house to a relative will affect tax treatment

Dear Liz: My mother recently died, leaving a house to my three siblings and me. We had the house appraised in February. My sister is buying the rest of us out. We decided to give our sister a break and sold her the house below the appraised amount. As the “selling price” (which will be a public record) will be below the appraisal, can I take my “loss” on my taxes this year? I gave her a $25,000 reduction, so I assume I can take $3,000 a year for eight years. Is this true?

Answer: Probably not.

The sale to a family member probably dooms any chance of taking a capital loss, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax and accounting at Wolters Kluwer.

“The law is not entirely clear on this topic with the IRS perhaps taking a more severe stand than the Tax Court, but both seem to frown on any use of the real estate for personal purposes after the death of the parent,” Luscombe said.

For a capital loss, the IRS appears to require that the inherited property be sold in an arm’s length transaction to an unrelated person, Luscombe said. The IRS also requires that you and your siblings did not use the property for personal purposes and did not intend to convert the property to personal use before the sale.

Even the Tax Court cases appear to at least require a conversion to an income-producing purpose before the sale and no personal use of the property after the death of the parent.

“The reader may find a court willing to say that personal use by a sibling is not personal use by the reader, and, from the reader’s perspective, it was converted to investment property,” Luscombe said. “However, since this was a sale to a sibling and not an unrelated person, I think that the IRS would disagree with that position.”

Q&A: Consult a pro when planning elder care

Dear Liz: My parents and I are discussing the best ways to protect their assets if one of them must live in a nursing home. Their home is paid off, and we were wondering if adding my name on the deed will secure the home from a mandatory sale for caregiving expenses. Please note, I am the only child. Also, I may want to live there someday to care for the other parent. Looking for the best options for saving money and avoiding inheritance tax for this asset.

Answer: Please consult an elder law attorney before you take any steps to “protect” assets because the wrong moves could come back to haunt you (and your parents).

It sounds like you’re contemplating the possibility that one of your parents may wind up on Medicaid, the government health program for the poor that covers nursing home costs. Medicaid has a very low asset limit and uses a “look back” period to discourage people from transferring money or property just so they can qualify. In most states, transfers made within 60 months of the application are examined and, if found to be in violation of the rules, used to determine a penalty period to prevent someone from qualifying for Medicaid coverage. In California, the look-back period is 30 months.

The state can attempt to recoup Medicaid costs from people’s estates by putting liens against their homes. You might see that as an “inheritance tax,” but inheritance taxes are taxes imposed in a few states on people who inherit money or property. Although all states try to recoup Medicaid costs, only six — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have inheritance taxes, and these either exempt or give favorable rates to children who inherit.

Having your name added to the deed can cause problems, as well. Your creditors could go after the home if you’re sued, and you could lose a portion of the step up in tax basis you would get if you inherited the house instead. If you’re married and get divorced, your portion of your parents’ home could be considered a “marital asset” that has to be divided.

It’s great that you and your parents are trying to plan for long-term care, but you should seek out professional guidance.

Selling mom’s house may require an appraisal first

Dear Liz: My mother recently passed away. The title to her home was held in the family trust. My siblings and I are in the process of clearing out the house in preparation for a sale. Do we need to obtain a “step-up” basis appraisal before the sale to use in determining capital gain on the home? We do not know the original price paid for the home in the late 1960s. Alternatively, could we use an appraisal made in November 2016 as a basis and apply the one-time $250,000 capital gain exclusion?

Answer: You definitely need to establish a property’s value for income tax purposes soon after the owner’s death. If you sell within a year, you could use the fair market value as the home’s new basis, said estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell.

“There is no law about this one-year period,” Mitchell said. “It is just what is often used by both IRS and practitioners.”

You may want more certainty or think the sale may not happen within a year. Estate planning attorney Jennifer Sawday of Long Beach recommends you immediately reach out to a real estate agent to get a broker opinion value letter or hire a certified real estate appraiser to determine the exact value of the home at the date of your mother’s death.

“If you are able to sell the home close to or not much higher than the date of death valuation, the trust will not have any capital gains,” she said. “Plus real estate expenses and other trust administration fees will be computed against the home selling price to minimize any capital gains as well.”

A tax pro can help you figure this all out. The costs of hiring tax and legal help can be charged to the estate.

All the gain in value from the past five decades won’t be taxed. In some parts of the country where home prices are high, such as California, that step-up in basis is far more valuable than the $250,000 home sale exclusion, which you wouldn’t be able to use anyway unless you lived in and owned the home for at least two of the previous five years.

Q&A: Here’s a big tax mistake you can easily avoid

Dear Liz: I’m self-employed and my wife wasn’t working last year. In December, we returned to California and found a small home to purchase using $107,000 I took out of my IRA. Since we weren’t quite certain of what our income would be, we received our health insurance in Oregon through an Affordable Care Act exchange.

When we filed our taxes we got hit with a $20,000 bill for the insurance, because we earned too much to qualify for subsidies, and a $10,000 bill for the IRA withdrawal. Our goal was to own our home outright, which we do, but now we have a $30,000 tax bill hanging over us.

Can we work with the IRS somehow on this? We didn’t “earn” the $107,000; we invested it in a home. It wasn’t income, so why should we be punished for using our savings to purchase a home?

Answer: If you mean, “Can I talk the IRS out of following the law?” then the answer is pretty clearly no. The IRA withdrawal was income. It doesn’t matter what you did with it.

Consider that you probably got a tax deduction when you contributed to the IRA, which means you didn’t pay income taxes on that money. The gains have been growing tax deferred, which means you didn’t pay tax on those, either.

Uncle Sam gave you those breaks to encourage you to save for retirement, but he wants to get paid eventually. That’s why IRAs and most other retirement accounts are subject to required minimum distributions and don’t get the step-up in tax basis that other investments typically get when the account owner dies.

(If you did not get a tax deduction on your contributions, by the way, then part of your withdrawal should have been tax-free. If you’d contributed to a Roth IRA, your contributions would not have been deductible but withdrawals in retirement would be tax-free.)

The IRS does offer long-term payment plans that may help. People who owe less than $50,000 can get up to six years to pay their balances off. You would file Form 9465 to request a payment plan. The IRS’ site has details.

Here’s a good rule to follow in the future: If you’re considering taking any money from a retirement account, talk to a tax professional first. People often dramatically underestimate the cost of tapping their 401(k)s and IRAs; a tax pro can set you straight.

Q&A: Loans, taxes and home sales

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about determining home sale profits for a widow. My question is how you calculate taxes when there’s a loan in the mix. For instance, when I bought my home, I took out a mortgage. Subsequently, I took out a second mortgage to pay for a pool and landscaping. I also refinanced several times, but never took a mortgage with cash out. Please advise me how to calculate my cost basis given these loans. Of course, you can broaden your response to include other loan scenarios and how they play into cost basis.

Answer: This will be a short answer, because they don’t. What you owe the mortgage lender(s) is typically irrelevant for calculating your capital gain.

Q&A: Heirs need a pro to sort our tax issues

Dear Liz: I know that when a person dies, their beneficiaries typically will inherit a home or other real estate at the current market value with no taxes owed on the appreciation that happened during the person’s lifetime. Does that hold true for stocks as well?

Answer: Usually, yes, but there are some exceptions.

If the stock is held inside a retirement account such as a 401(k) or IRA, and that retirement account is bequeathed to heirs, withdrawals will be subject to income tax. The same is true for investments held within variable annuities.

Inheritors also may owe capital gains taxes on a stock’s appreciation if the stock is held in certain trusts, such as a generation-skipping trust.

And even when no taxes are owed on the gain that happened during someone’s lifetime, there may be taxes due on the gain that happens after someone inherits the stock or other property, said Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell.

If you’re expecting an inheritance, you’d be smart to consult a tax pro so you understand the tax bill that may be attached.

Q&A: Independent contractors face a wealth of tax consequences

Dear Liz: My son was recently hired in his dream job, but his employer has classified him as an independent contractor rather than as an employee. This would be his first time drawing pay without all the taxes, benefits, insurance and so on taken out. I’m afraid he’s only seeing the good wage and not the flip side.

He’s a newlywed and doesn’t need his mama telling him what’s what. I thought if I sent him this “anonymous” letter that appeared in your column, that advice would be coming from you and he might just listen!

Answer: If your son doesn’t listen, that dream job could turn into a tax nightmare.

Tax pros often suggest their self-employed clients put aside half of what they earn to cover taxes and other obligations. Independent contractors have to pay both the employer and employee portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes, or roughly 15.3% instead of the 7.65% regular workers pay. That’s in addition to whatever federal, state and local income taxes he’ll owe.

He’s now required to make quarterly estimated tax payments because ours is a “pay as you go” system. Employees typically have those taxes withheld, but independent contractors must make quarterly estimated tax payments by Jan. 15, April 15, June 15 and Sept. 15. (The deadlines are moved to the following Monday if those dates fall on a weekend.) If he waits until he files his annual tax return to pay, he’ll probably owe penalties.

He also may need to register his business with his city or county and get a tax registration certificate.

If he doesn’t get health insurance through his spouse, he’ll need to find a policy, probably through an Affordable Care Act exchange. He also should save at least something for retirement. Although the self-employed have several good options for retirement savings, including SEP IRAs and solo 401(k)s, he’ll have to do without the “free money” that company 401(k) matches represent.

Business insurance may be another concern. He may need coverage to protect against lawsuits, disabilities and other potential setbacks.

Your son would be smart to hire a tax pro, such as an enrolled agent or CPA, to help him navigate this brave new-to-him world of self-employment.