Sooner or later, you may decide to sell property you inherited from a parent or other loved one. Whether the property is an investment, an antique, land, or something else, the sale may result in a taxable gain or loss. But how that gain or loss is calculated may surprise you.
When you sell property you purchased, you generally figure gain or loss by comparing the amount you receive in the sale transaction with your cost basis (as adjusted for certain items, such as depreciation). Inherited property is treated differently. Instead of cost, your basis in inherited property is generally its fair market value on the date of death (or an alternate valuation date elected by the estate's executor, generally six months after the date of death).
These basis rules can greatly simplify matters, since old cost information can be difficult, if not impossible, to track down. Perhaps even more important, the ability to substitute a "stepped up" basis for the property's cost can save you federal income taxes. Why? Because any increase in the property's value that occurred before the date of death won't be subject to capital gains tax.
For example: Assume your Uncle Harold left you stock he bought in 1986 for $5,000. At the time of his death, the shares were worth $45,000, and you recently sold them for $48,000. Your basis for purposes of calculating your capital gain is stepped up to $45,000. Because of the step-up, your capital gain on the sale is just $3,000 ($48,000 sale proceeds less $45,000 basis). The $40,000 increase in the value of the shares during your Uncle Harold's lifetime is not subject to capital gains tax.
What happens if a property's value on the date of death is less than its original purchase price? Instead of a step-up in basis, the basis must be lowered to the date-of-death value.
Capital gains resulting from the disposition of inherited property automatically qualify for long-term capital gain treatment, regardless of how long you or the decedent owned the property. This presents a potential income tax advantage, since long-term capital gain is taxed at a lower rate than short-term capital gain.
Be cautious if you inherited property from someone who died in 2010 since, depending on the situation, different tax basis rules might apply.