Smart ways to handle an inheritance
We’ve all heard stories about individuals who passed away quietly after a life of frugality, leaving a fortune to their unsuspecting heirs or, occasionally, a beloved pet.
The reality is a lot less riveting. Although two-thirds of baby boomers are expected to receive an inheritance — mostly from parents — longer life spans and the rising cost of healthcare can shrink the size of their parents’ assets or wipe them out altogether.
According to a 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Board, the average bequest for the wealthiest 5% of U.S. households was $1.1 million; for the next 45%, it was $183,000; and for the bottom 50%, it was $68,000.
Complicating matters is the fact that many estates contain real estate, investments, cash, retirement savings accounts and life insurance plans. It could take months to track down these assets and divide them among the estate’s heirs, and you could incur significant legal fees in the process — particularly if the estate was large or your relative died without a will.
There are also different rules for different heirs: Spouses, for example, enjoy some tax breaks and exemptions that aren’t available for adult children or other heirs.
Brian Lee, 44, of Tacoma, Washington, got a crash course in estate law after his late father’s brother and sister died within a year of each other. Neither of his father’s siblings had children when they died, so their estates were divided among the surviving relatives.
Lee ended up with a six-figure inheritance, but because his uncle died without a will, settling the estate took months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. Lee’s aunt had a will, which made “all the difference in the world in terms of the process,” Lee said.
What you’ll owe in taxes
Unless your parents were fabulously wealthy, you won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes, but that doesn’t mean Uncle Sam has no interest in your inheritance.
If you inherited stocks, mutual funds or other investments in a taxable account, you’ll be able to take advantage of a generous tax break known as a step-up in basis. The cost basis for taxable assets, such as stocks and mutual funds, is “stepped up” to the investment’s value on the day of the original owner’s death.
For example, if your father paid $50 for a share of stock and it was worth $250 on the day he died, your basis would be $250. If you sell the stock immediately, you won’t owe any taxes; if you hold on to it, you’ll only owe taxes (or be eligible to claim a loss) on the difference between $250 and the sale price. It’s a good idea to notify the investment-account custodian of the date of death to ensure that you get the step-up.
Because of this favorable tax treatment, a taxable-account inheritance could be a good source of cash for a short-term goal, such as paying off high-interest debt or making a down payment on a house.
If you’d rather keep the money invested, review your inherited investments to see whether they are appropriate for your portfolio. For example, you could sell individual stocks and invest the money in a diversified mutual fund without triggering a big tax bill.
If you inherited a tax-deferred retirement plan, such as a traditional IRA, you’ll have to pay taxes on the money. But you can make the tax hit less onerous.
Spouses can roll the money into their own IRAs and postpone distributions — and taxes — until they’re 70½. All other beneficiaries who want to continue to benefit from tax-deferred growth must roll the money into a separate account known as an inherited IRA.
Make sure the IRA is rolled directly into your inherited IRA. If you take a check, you won’t be allowed to deposit the money. Rather, the IRS will treat it as a distribution and you’ll owe taxes on the entire amount.
Once you’ve rolled the money into an inherited IRA, you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) every year — and pay taxes on the money — based on your age and life expectancy.
Deadlines are critical: You must take your first RMD by December 31 of the year following the death of your parent (or whoever left you the account). Otherwise, you’ll be required to deplete the entire account within five years after the year following your parent’s death.
The December 31 deadline is also important if you are one of several beneficiaries of an inherited IRA. If you fail to split the IRA among the beneficiaries by that date, your RMDs will be based on the life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary, which may force you to take larger distributions than if the RMDs were based on your age and life expectancy.
You can take out more than the RMD, but setting up an inherited IRA gives you more control over your tax liabilities. You can, for example, take the minimum amount required while you’re working, then increase withdrawals when you’re retired and in a lower tax bracket.
Did you inherit a Roth IRA? As long as the original owner funded the Roth at least five years before he or she died, you don’t have to pay taxes on the money. You can’t, however, let it grow tax-free forever.
If you don’t need the money, transfer it to an inherited Roth IRA and take RMDs under the same rules governing a traditional inherited IRA. But with a Roth, your RMDs won’t be taxed.
When you inherit a relative’s real estate, the value of the property will also be stepped up to its value on the date of the owner’s death. That can result in a large lump sum.
Selling a home, however, is considerably more complex than unloading stocks. You’ll need to maintain the home, along with paying the mortgage, taxes, insurance and utilities, until it’s sold.
Proceeds from a life insurance policy aren’t taxable as income. However, the money may be included in your estate for purposes of determining whether you must pay federal or state estate taxes.
Spending your windfall
Go ahead and treat yourself to a modest splurge — a vacation, for example — but avoid making costly changes in your lifestyle. An estimated 70% of people who suddenly receive a large amount of money go through it all in just a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education.
Consider stashing your inheritance in a money market or bank savings account for six months to a year. You won’t earn much interest, but your money will be safe while you assemble a team of professionals, which should include a fee-only planner, a tax professional and an attorney.
Paying off credit cards and student loans will relieve you of high-interest debt and free up cash for other purposes. If you haven’t saved enough to cover several months’ worth of expenses, beef up your emergency fund. Then consider increasing your retirement savings.
Finally, if you don’t have an estate plan of your own, use some of the money to create one, including powers of attorney, healthcare directives, a will and, if necessary, a living trust. Your own heirs will thank you.
© 2019 The Kiplinger Washington Editors. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC