Q&A: When family balks at paying their fair share

Dear Liz: I inherited half a duplex from my parents. They were partners with my aunt and uncle. When alive, all parties shared expenses for the common areas. I rent out my half of the duplex while my aunt still lives in the other half. My cousins now control my aunt’s finances (she is 94 and in poor health). They refuse to reimburse me for common-area expenses such as painting the exterior (the paint was peeling, exposing the wood, and hadn’t been painted in more than 10 years) and repairing and updating the electrical panel, which had frayed and exposed wires that posed a fire hazard. The panel is on their half of the duplex but serves both units. These costs were about $15,000. What can I do? It’s not fair that I pay for everything when both owners benefit from the necessary repairs.

Answer: Your best hope may be to change your approach. Did you ask your cousins to help you pay for the repairs before you had them done, or only afterward? If they had no input into what was done or how, it’s understandable that they would balk when presented with half the bill.

Of course, they might have balked anyway, and that’s why owning property with other people can get tricky: They often don’t share your opinions about what needs to be done and how much to spend. Some prefer to defer maintenance and repairs indefinitely rather than shell out money to protect their investment. Others understand how important maintenance and repairs are but might want to do some of the work themselves to save money (although do-it-yourselfers shouldn’t attempt an electrical panel upgrade, obviously.)

So your frustration is understandable, but your options may be limited. If you can’t work something out with your cousins, your alternative may be to sell your half of the duplex, but that could require going to court to force a “partition” of the property. You should talk to an attorney familiar with the property laws in your state so you can get an idea of your options and their cost.

Q&A: Rules for inherited property

Dear Liz: If someone owns an asset, such as a home or stocks, and passes away, the heirs can get a stepped-up cost basis. What if that same person also owned a second home, vacation property and rentals? Do those properties also get a stepped-up cost basis for the heirs?

Answer: Typically, yes. A step-up in cost basis means that the increase in value that happened during a person’s lifetime isn’t subject to capital gains taxes. Let’s say your mom bought a stock for $2 and it was worth $10 at her death. If she had sold it herself just before she died, or given it to you to sell, taxes would be owed on the $8 gain. If she bequeathed the stock to you in her will instead, you could sell it for $10 and owe no tax. If the price went up to $11 before you sold, you would owe tax on the $1 gain since her death.

The step up in basis also wipes out the need to recapture depreciation taken for rental and commercial properties, says tax expert Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. (Depreciation is the loss in value over time due to age and wear and tear. Depreciation write-offs allow owners to deduct over several years the costs of buying and improving a rental or commercial property.) If your mom owned an apartment building and wrote off the depreciation, she would need to pay depreciation recapture taxes if she sold it. If you inherit the building, by contrast, you not only don’t owe taxes on the depreciation she took, but you can start depreciating the building all over again.

There’s an important exception to these general rules, however. If your mom placed the asset in an irrevocable trust before her death, it would be treated the same as a gift when you inherit it after her death, Luscombe says. You would get her basis, which means you would owe taxes on all the gain that happened during her lifetime plus any depreciation recapture taxes when you sold the asset.

Irrevocable trusts aren’t the same as the revocable living trusts people use to avoid probate, but are sometimes used when people are trying to get assets out of their estates to reduce future estate taxes. For the vast majority, though, estate taxes are no longer an issue, so irrevocable trusts can cause potentially unnecessary tax issues.