Death and Taxes: When the Two Coincide

Date December 12, 2022
Authors Tejal Shah, CPA

You know the saying: Only two things in life are certain, death and taxes. Sometimes the two certainties coincide, and sometimes in very complicated ways. Inheritance taxes are complicated and as tax advisors we are frequently questioned on the subject.

As difficult emotionally as a family member’s death can be, it can also lead to forced reconnections with family members who were content with being at a distance. The inheritance laws can even force people into joint ownership of property with people they have never met or might not get along with, not to mention that the government will come for its pound of flesh. You need to be prepared.

Among the types of taxes an executor may be responsible for:

Income Tax- Form 1040

When someone dies, the decedent will have lived for some part of that year and possibly have earned income during that part of the year. The executor or personal representative will be responsible for filing the decedent’s final income tax return.

The process can be complicated by a lack of information. The executor will need to locate the 1099s, W2s, and other tax documents necessary to complete the tax return. If the decedent failed to file prior year returns, the executor must find the information necessary to back-file any of those. The IRS has established a process for the executor to obtain the tax transcripts and file a return based on that information.

The tax documents received generally over-report the income that needs to be filed on the decedent’s final return. The income earned by the decedent through the date of death should be reported on their individual tax return; income earned after the date of death generally is reported on the decedent’s estate income tax return. If there is a named beneficiary on assets, such as an individual retirement account or a brokerage account, then the beneficiary reports that income on their individual tax return. Filing can be complex and should generally be handled by a tax advisor familiar with the process.

Estate Income Tax – Form 1041

The deceased’s estate may be liable for tax on any income it continues to earn after the date of death. For example, if an inherited IRA is owned by an estate and a distribution is taken, that gets reported on an estate income tax return. Rental real estate owned by an estate earns rental income that also gets reported on the estate income tax return, though that income could be offset by expenses and depreciation.

Income tax applies to an estate that generates more than $600 a year. If distributions are made during the year, taxable income may pass to the beneficiaries and be taxed on their individual returns instead of the estate return. In general, if an estate earns more than $600, the executor, trustee, or personal representative of the estate will have to obtain a Tax ID for the estate and file Form 1041. Each situation is unique and there may be instances where an estate should file a return even if the $600 threshold is not met.

Estate income is generally taxed at high rate due to compressed tax brackets. Under the 2022 tax rate schedule, to reach the highest tax bracket of 37 percent the estate’s income must be more than $13,450. Since taxable income can be passed on to the beneficiaries through distributions, it makes sense to do so if they are in a lower marginal tax bracket than the estate. To mitigate and minimize the burden of estate income tax, it pays to be proactive.

Beneficiary taxes

In general, beneficiaries do not have to pay taxes on anything they inherit, with few notable exceptions. If the beneficiary inherits a bank account, they do not pay tax on what is in the account but will be taxed on interest earned, such as on a savings account. Similarly, if the decedent’s qualified retirement account, like a 401(k) or an IRA, has a noted beneficiary, the beneficiary will be taxed on the withdrawals.

Life insurance policies present a similar but potentially confusing tax situation. If the beneficiary is paid one lump sum policy amount, it is not taxable income. However, if the beneficiary is paid in installments over several years, any interest accrued on the policy amount is considered taxable income.

When a decedent leaves an asset, such as a house or a car, and the beneficiary sells it for more than it was worth at the time of decedent’s death, the beneficiary will have to pay capital gains taxes on the difference. Only the “date of death value” is relevant, not the value when it was purchased.

Estate Tax– Federal Form 706

The estate or “death” tax, calculated on a Form 706, is the tax your deceased loved one’s estate must pay within nine months of the death. In the past, many more estates were subject to the estate tax because the exemption, the amount that can pass estate-tax free, was so low. Since the early 2000s the exemption has slowly crept higher, sometimes in large leaps, and currently sits at $12.06 million for 2022.

Estate refers to an individual’s assets, which includes their home(s), bank accounts, investment accounts, cars, jewelry, and so on. Estate taxes apply to assets that the decedent owned or retained an interest in at death. Gifts made during life of the decedent decrease the exemption available at death.

Portability & Federal Estate Tax Exemption:

Even when the estate is not taxable, the executor will elect to file estate tax due to “portability,” a provision in federal estate tax law that allows a surviving spouse to use any unused estate and gift tax exemptions after the deceased spouse’s death. Portability can be used to protect the surviving spouse from having to pay steep gift or estate taxes upon a spouse’s death.

State estate and inheritance taxes

Twelve states and the District of Columbia also apply state estate taxes, the threshold for which ranges from $1 million to $5.74 million. Some states also have an inheritance tax. Currently there are six states—Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—that tax an estate based on who inherits the assets located in that state. State inheritance taxes typically apply only when the estate passes to a beneficiary who is not a spouse or member of the immediate family, though there are some exceptions.

Tax laws can appear complex, tedious, and intimidating. HBK professionals who specialize in estate planning and consulting services are accessible and responsive, helping to lift the burden off those responsible for administering estates. If you are administering a loved one’s estate, reach out to an HBK tax advisor. We’re here to help.

Speak to one of our professionals about your organizational needs

"*" indicates required fields needs the contact information you provide to us to contact you about our products and services. You may unsubscribe from these communications at anytime. For information on how to unsubscribe, as well as our privacy practices and commitment to protecting your privacy, check out our Privacy Policy.