When you inherit property, such as a house or stocks, the property is usually worth more than it was when the original owner purchased it. If you were to sell the property, there could be huge capital gains taxes. Fortunately, when you inherit property, the property's tax basis is "stepped up," which means the basis would be the current value of the property.
The transfer of any asset from an estate to an heir can trigger tricky tax issues. Sometimes things can get even more difficult when it comes to a tricky tax like the capital gains tax, so it is worth knowing the ground rules ahead of time.
ElderLawAnswers.com recently considered this subject and the key rules of thumb in an article titled "Do You Pay Capital Gains Taxes on Property You Inherit?"
In the normal course of things post-mortem, the estate pays any state and federal estate taxes, then the heirs might even pay a state inheritance tax. Thereafter, if the heirs sell any inherited asset, then they may not pay any capital gains taxes if the asset is sold at or below its date of death value. This is the magic of what is called the "stepped-up basis."
Capital gains are always measured by the "basis", or the original value to the person being taxed (that is how you measure appreciation, after all). This becomes tricky, however, if the asset in question is "gifted" to an heir while the owner is alive. When this occurs, then the heir is stuck with the original "basis" of the one who gifted the asset.
For example, a home purchased in 1972 and "gifted" in 2013 most certainly will have substantial appreciation given real estate values over 40 years. If the home is later sold by the donee, then substantial capital gains taxes will be owed.
On the other hand, the same home inherited in 2013 by the same heir can be sold with some 40 years of appreciation stepped-up to current fair market value and sold with minimal, if any, capital gains taxes owed.
The capital gains tax is anything but simple. Accordingly, consider this a brief introduction to a complex subject. The simple point to take away is that the timing of wealth transfer has serious tax consequences.
Fortunately, capital gains taxes can be minimized, if not prevented.