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Can You Explain the Concept of Step-Up Basis?

Step up in basis
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There are several tax concepts that are important for real estate investors, but for many people, step-up in basis is one of the least understood.

If you inherit assets—especially real property—you need to understand the step-up in basis rules. These rules can save you a lot of amount of money on capital gains and depreciation recapture taxes.

Motley Fool’s recent article on this subject asks “What is a Step-Up in Basis?” The article explains that step-up in basis has significant implications for inherited property. When an asset is inherited because the original owner has passed away, in many cases, it’s worth more than when it was first purchased. To avoid a huge capital gains tax bill when the inherited property is sold, the cost basis of the asset is modified to its value at the time of its owner’s death. This is called a step-up in basis. Note that this only applies to property transferred after death. If a property was gifted or transferred before the original owner dies, the original cost basis would transfer to the recipient.

This is a gigantic tax benefit for estate planning, regardless of whether you go ahead and sell the inherited asset immediately or hold on to it for a time. While a step-up in basis can let heirs avoid capital gains taxes, it doesn’t allow heirs to avoid estate taxes that apply to big inheritances.

The estate tax this year is imposed on property in excess of $11.4 million per individual and $22.8 million per married couple. Therefore, if you and your spouse leave a $25 million estate to your heirs, $2.2 million of this will still be taxable, even though your heirs’ cost basis in assets they inherited will be stepped up for capital gains tax purposes.

There are many strategies that a qualified estate planning attorney can advise you on to avoid estate taxes, but step-up in basis doesn’t exclude the value of inherited property from a taxable estate all by itself.

There are two significant ramifications of stepped-up cost basis regarding inherited real estate assets. First, like with other assets, you don’t have to pay capital gains on any appreciation that occurred before you inherited the property. Selling an investment property after years of holding it, can mean a massive capital gains tax bill. Therefore, a stepped-up cost basis can be a very valuable benefit. A step-up in basis can also give you a larger depreciation tax benefit. The cost basis of residential real estate can be depreciated (deducted) over 27½ years: a higher number divided by 27½ years is a greater annual depreciation deduction than a smaller number would produce.

Estate transfers are pretty complicated, so work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Motley Fool (November 21, 2019) “What is a Step-Up in Basis?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Tax Planning, Financial Planning, Estate Tax, Unified Federal Estate & Gift Tax Exemption, Step-Up Basis

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