How to Avoid Paying Taxes on Inherited Property

Inheriting a home or other property can increase the value of your estate but it can also result in tax consequences. If the property you inherit has appreciated in value since the original owner purchased it, you could be on … Continue reading →

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Inheriting a home or other property can increase the value of your estate but it can also result in tax consequences. If the property you inherit has appreciated in value since the original owner purchased it, you could be on the hook for capital gains tax should you choose to sell it. That could result in a large tax bill if there’s a sizable gap between the original purchase price and the price you’re able to sell the property for. There are some possibilities for how to avoid paying capital gains tax on inherited property which are worth considering if you’re the beneficiary of an estate or trust

Capital Gains Tax, Explained

Capital gains tax applies when an investment is sold for more than its original purchase price. Typically, you might think about capital gains tax in terms of selling stocks or other securities you hold inside your investment portfolio. So if you bought a stock for $2 per share and sold it for $5 per share, you’d owe capital gains on the $3 in profit you realized from the sale.

The IRS taxes capital gains differently, depending on how long you hold the underlying asset. The short-term capital gains tax rate applies to investments or assets you hold for less than one year. The long-term capital gains tax rate applies to investments or assets you hold longer than one year.

Between the two, the long-term capital gains tax rate is more favorable. Short-term capital gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, whereas long-term capital gains are taxed at 0%, 15% or 20% tax rates, based on your filing status and taxable income for the year. So if you’re in a higher tax bracket, it typically makes more sense to hold investments longer to minimize the amount of capital gains tax you owe.

Capital Gains Tax Rules for Inherited Property

When inheriting property, such as a home or other real estate, the capital gains tax kicks in if you sell that asset at a higher price point than the person you inherited it from paid for it. Likewise, it’s possible to claim a capital loss deduction if you end up selling the property at a loss.

The difference with inherited property, however, is that the IRS allows you to use what’s known as a stepped-up basis for calculating capital gains tax liability. The step-up cost basis represents the value of the home when you inherit it versus its original purchase price.

For example, say your parents bought a home for $100,000 that’s worth $400,000 by the time you inherit it. Under ordinary capital gains tax rules, you’d owe tax on the $300,000 difference between what your parents paid for it and its current value.

That could result in a huge tax bill for you, which is why the IRS allows you to use the stepped-up basis instead. Assume that you don’t sell the home right away, for instance. You hold on to the property for two years, at which time you sell it for $450,000. Taking the step-up basis of $400,000 into account, you’d only pay capital gains on tax on the $50,000 in appreciation value.

That wouldn’t allow you to completely avoid paying capital gains taxes on inherited property, but using the step-up cost basis can reduce the amount of capital gains tax you’d owe.

How to Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax On Inherited Property

If you stand to inherit property and you want to avoid paying taxes on it, there are three possible options for minimizing or eliminating capital gains tax altogether. The first is to simply sell the property as soon as you inherit it. By selling it right away, you aren’t leaving any room for the property to appreciate in value any further. So if you inherit your parents’ home and it’s worth $250,000, selling it right away could help you avoid capital gains tax if it’s still only worth $250,000 at the time of the sale.

That may not be ideal, however, if it was your parents’ wish or your desire to keep the home in the family. In that scenario, there’s a second option you can consider.

Instead of selling the home right away, you could move into it and make it your primary residence. You could then sell the home two years later, potentially excluding some or all of the capital gains from the sale.

The IRS allows single filers to exclude up to $250,000 in capital gains from the sale of a home, increasing that to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return. The key is that you have to live in the home for at least two of the five years preceding the sale. So if you can envision yourself living in your parents’ home for at least two years, this is another way you might be able to avoid paying capital gains tax on the property.

A third option is to not sell the property and rent it out instead of living in it. This can be a little tricky, however, since there are still tax rules you have to observe. An inherited home that’s treated as an investment property for tax purposes would still be subject to capital gains tax if you decide to sell it. But you could defer paying those taxes if you complete a 1031 exchange to purchase another investment property to replace the one you’re selling.

Disclaiming an Inheritance to Avoid Capital Gains Tax

There’s one more possibility for how to avoid paying capital gains tax on inherited property. That’s simply choosing not to inherit it at all.

This is called disclaiming an inheritance and it’s something you can choose to do if you’d prefer not to get entangled in tax issues related to someone else’s estate. The downside, of course, is that once you formally disclaim an inheritance, you can’t go back and change your mind. Whatever property you forfeited would be passed on to the next person in line to inherit.

The Bottom Line

Inheriting property can trigger capital gains tax if you choose to sell it. And there are other taxes you may need to consider, such as state inheritance taxes. If the inherited property is a residence consider living in it for a few years before selling it. Alternatively, consider renting it. Talking to an estate planning attorney or a tax professional may be helpful if you stand to inherit assets from your parents or anyone else and you’re worried about owing Uncle Sam.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about what you should be including in your own estate plan. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with professional advisors in your local area in minutes. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Property taxes in America are collected by local governments as well as the federal government. The money collected is generally used to support community safety, schools, infrastructure and other public projects. A property tax calculator can help you better understand the average cost of property taxes in your state and county.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/AND-ONE, ©iStock.com/Dobrila Vignjevic, ©iStock.com/powerofforever

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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