Q&A: Changing tax law may have made home trust unnecessary

Dear Liz: I was told my father’s house did not qualify for a step-up in tax basis at his death because he had put the house in a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT). With your recent column mentioning the step-up when a home is inherited, I’m wondering if I paid unnecessary taxes.

Answer: In at least one sense, you may have.

Qualified personal residence trusts were a popular technique when the estate tax exemption limit was much lower. (Currently the limit is $11.58 million per person, but 20 years ago it was $675,000.) Putting a home in this kind of trust essentially froze its value for estate tax purposes while allowing the person who created the trust to continue living there for a certain length of time. At the end of that period, ownership of the home was transferred to the heirs and the person who created the trust had the option of renting the home from those heirs.

If the house hadn’t been put in a trust, the heirs would get a new tax basis when the owner died. The basis would be “stepped up” to the home’s current value, so there would be no capital gains tax owed on all the appreciation that occurred during the owner’s lifetime.

When a home has been placed in a QPRT, on the other hand, there’s no step-up in tax basis when the trust creator dies because the home already belongs to the heirs. When the heirs sell the home, they typically have to pay capital gains taxes on the appreciation that happened during the trust creator’s lifetime.

People who created these trusts were gambling that the estate taxes they would avoid would be substantially greater than the income taxes the heirs might owe. When estate tax limits were raised, many lost that bet.

So you didn’t pay unnecessary taxes in the strictest sense — you had to pay the taxes by law because the house was given to you before your father died. But in the larger sense, the tax bill you paid could have been avoided if the home hadn’t been put in that type of trust. If your father’s estate wound up being below the estate tax limit in the year he died, then the trust provided little benefit.