Dear Liz: My mother recently passed away. The title to her home was held in the family trust. My siblings and I are in the process of clearing out the house in preparation for a sale. Do we need to obtain a “step-up” basis appraisal before the sale to use in determining capital gain on the home? We do not know the original price paid for the home in the late 1960s. Alternatively, could we use an appraisal made in November 2016 as a basis and apply the one-time $250,000 capital gain exclusion?
Answer: You definitely need to establish a property’s value for income tax purposes soon after the owner’s death. If you sell within a year, you could use the fair market value as the home’s new basis, said estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell.
“There is no law about this one-year period,” Mitchell said. “It is just what is often used by both IRS and practitioners.”
You may want more certainty or think the sale may not happen within a year. Estate planning attorney Jennifer Sawday of Long Beach recommends you immediately reach out to a real estate agent to get a broker opinion value letter or hire a certified real estate appraiser to determine the exact value of the home at the date of your mother’s death.
“If you are able to sell the home close to or not much higher than the date of death valuation, the trust will not have any capital gains,” she said. “Plus real estate expenses and other trust administration fees will be computed against the home selling price to minimize any capital gains as well.”
A tax pro can help you figure this all out. The costs of hiring tax and legal help can be charged to the estate.
All the gain in value from the past five decades won’t be taxed. In some parts of the country where home prices are high, such as California, that step-up in basis is far more valuable than the $250,000 home sale exclusion, which you wouldn’t be able to use anyway unless you lived in and owned the home for at least two of the previous five years.
Inflation and Social Security
Dear Liz: Every time someone asks a question about when to start taking Social Security, all you financial advisers make your calculations based on the 7% to 8% annual increase you get by delaying between ages 62 and 70. What you never mention is that once you start getting Social Security, you also start getting the cost of living annual adjustments. I started at 63 and my monthly check has already gone up 5% and it’s compounded. In this era of higher inflation, that pushes out the break-even point into an age in the late eighties. You need to add that into your advice.
Answer: Surveys have shown that most people are happy with their decision to start Social Security, even when they started it early. Perhaps they don’t know what they’re missing.
The researchers who have studied Social Security claiming strategies have factored inflation into the mix, as well as longevity, investment returns and taxes (there’s something known as the “tax torpedo,” which can jack up marginal tax rates for middle-income Social Security recipients). The assumptions can differ, but the results don’t: The majority of people benefit from delaying. In today’s low-interest-rate environment, many researchers say the vast majority are better off.
Another factor the researchers consider — and that many early starters don’t — is what happens to the surviving spouse. When one member of a married couple dies, one of their two Social Security checks goes away and the survivor has to get by on a single check, which will be the larger of the two. That’s why it’s so important that the higher earner in a couple try to delay as long as possible, because it will boost the check for the person left behind.
That doesn’t mean single people should start early, however. Single people tend to have less savings and wealth than married people; they’re more likely to be poor than married couples, and single women have a higher poverty rate than single men. If you wind up getting most if not all your income from Social Security, you’ll want that check to be as large as possible.
As for your phrase, “this era of higher inflation” — yes, the 2.8% cost-of-living boost was higher than the 2% increase of the prior year. The year before that, the inflation adjustment was close to zero, and it was actually zero in 2010, 2011 and 2016. Annual adjustments over the last 20 years have averaged just a little over 2%. That’s not a lot to get excited about.