Clients are often surprised to learn that, for the most part, inherited assets are received income tax free. In addition to being income tax free, the appreciation on capital assets received from a decedent is also forgiven. The tax mechanism that allows for the forgiveness of the appreciation is known as a “step-up” in basis. A step-up in basis allows the beneficiary to sell an asset received from a decedent income tax free.
Income in Respect of a Decedent (“IRD”)
The primary exception to the general step-up-in-basis rule is income in respect of a decedent (“IRD”). Common examples of IRD include pension, IRA and 401(k) distributions, certain annuity payments and the decedent’s final paycheck. For a detailed explanation of IRD from a CPA’s perspective, see Maximizing the Tax Deduction for Income in Respect of a Decedent.
IRD can also include post-death sales of the decedent’s property if the sales contract was finalized prior to death. This can be a very big deal.
For example, assume Dad owned real property with a basis of $1,000 and a fair market value of $1,000,000 on the day he died. Usually, this property would receive a step-up in basis to its date-of-death value. So Son would inherit the property with a basis of $1,000,000. If Son sells the property 1 day after Dad dies, he pays zero income tax on the sale. However, if the real property was subject to a pre-death sales contract, and the sale closes 1 day after Dad dies, the gain would be considered IRD and Dad’s estate would have to pay income tax on $999,000 in gain. Assuming a 15% tax rate, the tax bite would be $149,850!
IRS Rules Gain from Post-Death Sale of Decedent’s Real Property under Pre-Death Contract Wasn’t IRD: "Economically material contingencies might have disrupted the sale prior to Decedent’s death."
Obviously, spotting IRD issues in a probate proceeding and knowing how to best manage them can save your client big bucks; and turn your average probate lawyer into the family hero. In Private Letter Ruling 200744001, the IRS provides an excellent road map for understanding what IRD is and, most importantly, how to avoid paying income taxes on IRD if the pre-death contract is subject to "economically material contingencies that might have disrupted the sale prior to Decedent’s death." Remember that phrase, it’s the key to everything that’s going on in this private letter ruling.
IRS Private Letter Ruling 200744001:
The information submitted states that Taxpayer, Decedent’s revocable trust, entered into a contract to sell a plot of real property on D1, with an intended closing date of D2. Before D2, however, a gas pipeline was discovered underneath the property, causing the parties to delay the sale until Taxpayer, the buyer and the pipeline’s operating company could resolve a number of issues. The parties needed to address matters such as providing for an easement for the pipeline company to enter onto the property as well as providing that the pipeline company would provide restitution for any damage to the property. Before the parties could resolve these issues, Decedent died on D3. The sale did not actually close until D4.
Section 691(a)(1) provides that the amount of all items of gross income in respect of a decedent (IRD) which are not properly includible in respect of the taxable period in which falls the date of the decedent’s death or a prior period (including the amount of all items of gross income in respect of a prior decedent, if the right to receive such amount was acquired by reason of the death of the prior decedent or by bequest, devise, or inheritance from the prior decedent) shall be included in the gross income, for the taxable year when received, of: (A) the estate of the decedent, if the right to receive the amount is acquired by the decedent’s es tate from the decedent; (B) the person who, by reason of the death of the decedent, acquires the right to receive the amount, if the right to receive the amount is not acquired by the decedent’s estate from the decedent; or (C) the person who acquires from the dec edent the right to receive the amount by bequest, devise, or inheritance, if the amount is received after a distribution by the decedent’s estate of such right.
Section 1.691(a)-1(b) of the Income Tax Regulations provides that the term “income in respect of decedent” refers to those amounts to which a decedent was entitled as gross income but which were not properly includible in computing the decedent’s taxable income for the taxable year ending with the date of the decedent’s death or for a previous taxable year under the method of accounting employed by the decedent. Thus, the term includes income to which the decedent had a contingent claim at the time of the decedent’s death.
Section 1014(a) provides that the basis of property in the hands of a person acquiring the property from a decedent or to whom the property passed from a decedent shall, if not sold, exchanged, or ot herwise disposed of before the decedent’s death by such person, be the fair market value of the property at the date of the decedent’s death.
Section 1014(b)(1) provides, in part, that for purposes of section 1014(a), property acquired by bequest, devise or inherit ance, or by the decedent’s estate from the decedent shall be considered to have been acquired from or to have passed from the decedent.
In Rev. Rul. 78-32, 1978-1 C.B. 198, prior to death, a decedent had entered into a binding contract to sell real estate, had substantially completed all of the substantive prerequisites of consummation of the sale, and was unconditionally entitled to the proceeds of the sale at the time of death. The ruling holds that the gain realized from the sale of the real estate that was completed by the decedent’s executor is income in respect of a decedent within the meaning of § 691(a).
In Taxpayer’s case, important issues needed to be addressed before the sale of the property could be closed. The closing was delayed until D4 because of these issues. Taxpayer needed to attend to substantive as well as ministerial matters. The pipeline was not discovered until after the original contract was entered into; this created economically material contingencies that might have disrupted the sale prior to Decedent’s death.
Based solely on the facts and representations submitted, we conclude that any gain realized from the sale of the property after Decedent’s death does not constitute income in respect of a decedent within the meaning of § 691. We further conclude that basis of the property in Taxpayer’s hands before the sale should be determined under § 1014(a).