Leaving Assets to Your Heirs: Income Tax Considerations
An inheritance is generally worth only what your heirs get to keep after taxes are paid. So when it comes to leaving a legacy, not all property is created equal--at least as far as federal income tax is concerned.
When evaluating whom to leave property to and how much to leave to each person, you might want to consider how property will be taxed and the tax rates of your heirs.
Favorable tax treatment for heirs
Assets in a Roth IRA will accumulate income tax free and qualified distributions from a Roth IRA to your heirs after your death will be received income tax free. An heir will generally be required to take distributions from the Roth IRA over his or her remaining life expectancy. (Of course, your beneficiaries can always withdraw more than the required minimum amounts.) If your spouse is your beneficiary, your spouse can treat the Roth IRA as his or her own and delay distributions until after his or her death. So your heirs will be able to continue to grow the assets in the Roth IRA income tax free until after the assets are distributed; any growth occurring after funds are distributed may be taxed in the future.
The Supreme Court has ruled that inherited IRAs are not retirement funds and do not qualify for a federal exemption under bankruptcy. Some states may provide some protection for inherited IRAs under bankruptcy. You may be able to provide some bankruptcy protection to an inherited IRA by placing the IRA in a trust for your heirs. If this is a concern of yours, you may wish to consult a legal professional.
Appreciated capital assets
When you leave property to your heirs, they generally receive an initial income tax basis in the property equal to the property's fair market value (FMV) on the date of your death. This is often referred to as a "stepped-up basis," because basis is typically stepped up to FMV. However, basis can also be "stepped down" to FMV.
If your heirs sell the property with a stepped-up (or a stepped-down) basis immediately after your death for FMV, there should be no capital gain (or loss) to recognize since the sales price will equal the income tax basis. If they sell the property later for more than FMV, any appreciation after your death will generally be taxed at favorable long-term capital gain tax rates. If the appreciated assets are stocks, qualified dividends received by your heirs will also be taxed at favorable long-term capital gain tax rates.
If your heirs receive property from you that has depreciated in value, they will receive a basis stepped down to FMV and will not be able to claim any loss with respect to the depreciation before your death. You may want to consider selling depreciated property while you are alive so that you can claim the loss.
Not as favorable
tax treatment for heirs
Tax-deferred retirement accounts
Assets in a tax-deferred retirement account (including a traditional IRA or 401(k) plan) will accumulate income tax deferred within the account. However, distributions from the account will be subject to income tax at ordinary income tax rates when distributed to your heirs (if there were nondeductible contributions made to the account, the nondeductible contributions can be received income tax free). An heir will generally be required to take distributions from the tax-deferred retirement account over his or her remaining life expectancy. (Of course, your beneficiaries can always withdraw more than the required minimum amounts.) If your spouse is the beneficiary of the account, the rules may be more favorable. So your heirs will be able to defer taxation of the retirement account until distribution, but distributions will generally be fully subject to income tax at ordinary income tax rates.
Your heirs do not receive a stepped-up (or stepped-down) basis in your retirement accounts at your death.
Even though distributions are taxable, your heirs will nevertheless generally appreciate receiving tax-deferred retirement accounts from you. After all, they do get to keep the amounts remaining after taxes are paid.
Toxic or underwater assets
Your heirs might not appreciate receiving property that is subject to a mortgage, lien, or other liability that exceeds the value of the property. In fact, an heir receiving such property may want to consider disclaiming the property.
Life insurance and cash
Life insurance proceeds received by your heirs will generally be received income tax free. Your heirs can generally invest life insurance proceeds and cash they receive in any way that they wish. When doing so, your heirs can factor in how the property will be taxed to them in the future.