When Can Estate Assets Be Distributed?

Just as an individual pays taxes, so do estates. An estate is required to file an annual income tax return for each calendar year it is open, even if only for part of the year. This is in addition to the estate tax return and the decedent’s final tax return, explains a recent article “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon” from Forbes.

The estate tax return is based on the assets in the estate, the income received and deductible expenses paid during the calendar year. Only one estate tax return is required. However, as long as the estate is open, an annual estate income tax return needs to be filed.

To minimize income, many executors distribute income to beneficiaries shortly after it comes into the estate. The estate takes a deduction for the income distributed to beneficiaries in the same year it is received by the estate. Beneficiaries are required to include the distribution in their gross income.

However, if the estate does not distribute income before the end of the year, the estate will owe income taxes. There are further complexities to be aware of, including what happens if an executor receives unexpected income or does not know the tax impact of certain transactions. The estate has to pay taxes, but what happens if all assets have been distributed?

The estate still owes those taxes.

The executor may be personally liable for paying the taxes.

If some of the expenses the estate pays are not deductible, but the executor thinks they are, then the estate will have an income tax liability, possibly without the cash to pay it.

The estate often receives property taxable as income if it is not distributed to beneficiaries, like a stock dividend. The estate receives the stock, and its taxable income based on the value at the date of the distribution.

If the estate does not distribute the stock to beneficiaries until later in the year and the stock’s value declines, the estate is still required to recognize the income equal to the stock’s value on the date it was received. If the executor deducts the lower value of the stock, then the estate will be liable for the income tax on the difference.

In some cases, these kinds of issues can be prevented by maintaining a certain level of cash in the estate account until the final estate tax return is filed. The beneficiaries receive distributions once all of the taxes—estate income, estate and final individual or final joint—are paid.

For larger or more complex estates, it is wise to have a discussion with the estate planning attorney, the family CPA and the executor, so all parties are prepared for tax liabilities in advance.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2022) “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon”

Should You Put Your House in Your Child’s Name?

One of the ways families build wealth across generations is through home ownership. Parents who can afford to give a property to children who either sell the home and distribute profits or keep it in the family have a definite advantage over generations of renters. How to transfer the home is not always straightforward. A recent article from The Washington Post titled “Don’t put your kids on the title of your home. There’s a better way for them to inherit the property” explains how to do this.

In this article, the mother placed an adult child on the deed to a home purchased some five years ago. The mom wants to sell the house and buy a smaller one nearby. The adult child has never lived in the home. The mother wants to do an 80/20 split of profits from the sale, with the child receiving the majority amount. This would push the child into a higher tax bracket, although the child says she could use the income.

The mother, despite her good will, has made a classic estate planning mistake. Was she trying to avoid probate at death, or to give the child some or all of the property?

As the homeowner, the mother may exclude the first $250,000 in profits from federal income taxes, if she was the sole owner. If she were married, that number would be up to $500,000. However, she’s not the sole owner.

When a person dies, heirs inherit real estate at its current market value. If the home was purchased for $100,000 and its worth is $500,000 when the owner dies, a child who inherits the home outright and then sells it immediately will receive about $400,000 in profits. If the house was inherited after death and then sold shortly thereafter, the IRS would say the property value is $500,000.

If someone inherits a home worth $500,000 and then sells it for $500,000, there is no profit because of the stepped-up value of the home assigned at the time of the owner’s death. However, if the estate in total is worth less than $11.7 million, estate taxes are not a concern.

Here’s the twist: if the mother and child are co-owners of the home and the mother dies, the child inherits only one-half the value of the home (and receives the stepped-up basis for the half but won’t benefit from the stepped-up basis) If the child sells the home, they won’t pay taxes on the share inherited from the mother but would pay taxes on the child’s share of the home.

If the mom bought the house for $100,000 and the mother and child are co-owners, the child would inherit the mother’s half of the property at the stepped-up basis of $500,000. When the home was sold, the mother’s half is shielded from taxes, but the child’s profit is calculated based on the difference between the purchase and sales price, or $400,000, of which their share is $200,000. They would owe taxes on the $200,000, instead of inheriting the home tax-free.

There are many estate planning and real estate tax rules making this more complicated. However, one better alternative is for the mom to put the home in a living trust, so she controls the home while she is alive, and the child can inherit the home through the trust upon her death. Talk with an estate planning attorney about how to create a living trust and how it would work to benefit both of you.

Reference: The Washington Post (Oct. 20, 2021) “Don’t put your kids on the title of your home. There’s a better way for them to inherit the property.”