How Do You Survive Financially after Death of Spouse?

The financial issues that arise following the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It’s not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.

Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse’s income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.

Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.

If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse’s taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.

The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there’s a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse’s gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.

It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses’ passing.

There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased’s estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse’s unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don’t file in a timely manner, you’ll lose this exemption, so don’t neglect this task.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”

How Bad Will Your Estate’s Taxes Be?

The federal estate tax has been a small but steady source of federal revenue for nearly 100 years. The tax was first imposed on wealthy families in America in 1916. They were paid by families whose assets were previously passed down through multiple generations completely and utterly untaxed, says the article “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?” from The Orange County Register.

The words “Death Tax” don’t actually appear anywhere in the federal tax code, but was the expression used to create a sympathetic image of the grieving families of farmers and small business owners who were burdened by big tax bills at a time of personal loss, i.e., the death of a parent. The term was made popular in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.

Fast forward to today—2020. Will the federal government tax your estate when you die, seize your home and everything you had hoped to hand down to your children? Not likely. Most Americans don’t have to worry about estate or death taxes. With the new federal exemptions at a record high of $11,580,000 for singles and twice that much for married couples, only very big estates are subject to a federal estate tax. Add to that, the 100% marital deduction means that a surviving spouse can inherit from a deceased spouse and is not required to pay any estate tax, no matter how big the estate.

However, what about state estate taxes? To date, thirteen states still impose an estate tax, and many of these have exemptions that are considerably lower than the federal tax levels. Six states add to that with an inheritance tax. That’s a tax that is levied on the beneficiaries of the estate, usually based upon their relationship to the deceased.

Many estates will still be subject to state estate taxes and income taxes.

The personal representative or executor is responsible and legally authorized to file returns on a deceased person’s behalf. They are usually identified in a person’s will as the executor of the estate. If a family trust holds the assets, the trust document will name a trustee. If there was no will or trust, the probate court will appoint an administrator. This person may be a professional administrator and likely someone who never knew the person whose estate they are now in charge of. This can be very difficult for family members.

If the executor fails to file a return or files an inaccurate or incomplete return, the IRS may assess penalties and interest payments.

The final individual income tax return is filed in just the same way as it would be when the deceased was living. All income up to the date of death must be reported, and all credits and deductions that the person is entitled to can be claimed. The final 1040 should only include income earned from the start of the calendar year to the date of their death. The filing for the final 1040 is the same as for living taxpayers: April 15.

Even if taxes are not due on the 1040, a tax return must be filed for the deceased if a refund is due. To do so, use the Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due to a Deceased Taxpayer. Anyone who files the final tax return on a decedent’s behalf must complete IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship, and attach it to the final Form 1040.

If the decedent was married, the widow or widower can file a joint return for the year of death, claiming the full standard deduction and using joint-return rates, as long as they did not remarry in that same year.

An estate planning attorney can help with these and the many other details that must be taken care of, before the estate can be finalized.

Reference: The Orange County Register (March 1, 2020) “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?”