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Do i have to pay tax on a house that i inherited

Do I Have To Pay Tax On A House That I Inherited?


The tax rules are different depending on the type of assets that you inherit. If you inherit a house, you may or may not have a tax liability when you go to sell it. This will largely depend on whose name was on the deed when the house was passed to you.  There are also special exceptions that come into play if the house is owned by a trust, or if it was gifted with the kids prior to their parents passing away. On the bright side, with some advanced planning, heirs can often times avoid having to pay tax on real estate assets when they pass to them as an inheritance.


Step-up In Basis


Many assets that are included in the decedent’s estate receive what’s called a step-up in basis. As with any asset that is not held in a retirement account, you must be able to identify the “cost basis”, or in other words, what you originally paid for it. Then when you eventually sell that asset, you don’t pay tax on the cost basis, but you pay tax on the gain.

Example:  You buy a rental property for $200,000 and 10 years later you sell that rental property for $300,000.  When you sell it, $200,000 is returned to you tax free and you pay long-term capital gains tax on the $100,000 gain.

Inheritance Example: Now let’s look at how the step-up works. Your parents bought their house 30 years ago for $100,000 and the house is now worth $300,000.  When your parents pass away and you inherit the house, the house receives a step-up in basis to the fair market value of the house as of the date of death. This means that when you inherit the house, your cost basis will be $300,000 and not the $100,000 that they paid for it. Therefore, if you sell the house the next day for $300,000, you receive that money 100% tax-free due to the step-up in basis.


Appreciation After Date of Death


Let’s build on the example above.  There are additional tax considerations if you inherit a house and continue to hold it as an investment and then sell it at a later date.  While you receive the step-up in basis as of the date of death, the appreciation that occurs on that asset between the date of death and when you sell it is going to be taxable to you.

Example: Your parents passed away June 2019 and at that time their house is worth $300,000. The house receives the step-up in basis to $300,000. However, lets say this time you rent the house or don’t sell it until September 2020. When you sell the house in September 2020 for $350,000, you will receive the $300,000 tax-free due to the step-up in basis, but you’ll have to pay capital gains tax on the $50,000 gain that occurred between date of death and when you sold house.


Caution: Gifting The House To The Kids


In an effort to protect the house from the risk of a long-term event, sometimes individuals will gift their house to their kids while they are still alive. Some see this as a way to remove themselves from the ownership of their house to start the five-year Medicaid look back period, however, there is a tax disaster waiting for you with the strategy.

When you gift an asset to someone, they inherit your cost basis in that asset, so when you pass away, that asset does not receive a step-up in basis because you don’t own it and it’s not part of your estate.

Example:  Your parents change the deed on the house to you and your siblings while they’re still alive to protect assets from a possible nursing home event.  They bought the house 30 years ago for $100,000, and when they pass away it’s worth $300,000. Since they gifted the assets to the kids while they were still alive, the house does not receive a step-up in basis when they pass away, and the cost basis on the house when the kids sell it is $100,000; in other words, the kids will have to pay tax on the $200,000 gain in the property.  Based on the long-term capital gains rates and possible state income tax, when the children sell the house, they may have a tax bill of $44,000 or more which could have been completely avoided with better advanced planning.


How To Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax On Inherited Property


There are ways to both protect the house from a long-term event and still receive the step-up in basis when the current owners pass away. This process involves setting up an irrevocable trust to own the house which then protects the house from a long-term event as long as it’s held in the trust for at least five years.

Now, we do have to get technical for a second. When an asset is owned by an irrevocable trust, it is technically removed from your estate. Most assets that are not included in your estate when you pass do not receive a step-up in basis; however, if the estate attorney that drafts the trust document puts the correct language within the trust, it allows you to protect the assets from a long-term event and receive a step-up in basis when the owners of the house pass away.

For this reason, it’s very important to work with an attorney that is experienced in handling trusts and estates, not a generalist. It only takes a few missing sentences from that document that can make the difference between getting that asset tax free or having a huge tax bill when you go to sell the house.

Establishing this trust can sometimes cost between $3,000 and $6,000. But by paying this amount upfront and doing the advance planning, you could save your heirs 10 times that amount by avoiding a big tax bill when they inherit the house.


Making The House Your Primary


In the case that the house is gifted to the children prior to the parents passing away and the house is not awarded the step-up in basis, there is an advance tax planning strategy if the conditions are right to avoid the big tax bill.  If one of the children would be interested in making their parent’s house their primary residence for two years, then they are then eligible for either the $250,000 or $500,000 capital gains exclusion.

According to current tax law, if the house you live in has been your primary residence for two of the previous five years, when you go to sell the house you are allowed to exclude $250,000 worth of gain for single filers and $500,000 worth of gain for married filing joint.  This advanced tax strategy is more easily executed when there is a single heir and can get a little more complex when there are multiple heirs.



Michael Ruger


About Michael………


Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.


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