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What's The Step-Up In Basis Worth?

When you're developing an estate plan for your family, several elements factor into the equation, including a lot of tax ramifications—which may include both estate taxes and income taxes. They're not mutually exclusive and, in fact, they're often intertwined.

A case in point is the so-called "step-up in basis" on inherited assets. That can be a reason to keep some assets in your estate rather than trying to reduce the estate's value.

Slimming down an estate, particularly by making gifts to family members during your lifetime, is often a good idea. However, there's a marital deduction that normally allows you to leave unlimited assets to your spouse free of estate tax, while transfers to other heirs are sheltered by a generous individual estate tax exemption that's inflation-indexed. Each person can shield $5.45 million from estate and gift taxes in 2016, up from $5.43 million in 2015.

Meanwhile, if you sell real estate or other assets before you die, you'll owe capital gains tax on your profits. The maximum tax rate on a long-term gain (on assets you've held longer than a year) is 15%, or 20% for investors in the top ordinary income tax bracket. In addition, you may be liable for a 3.8% surtax on net investment income (NII), including capital gains, that exceeds an annual threshold. That adds up to a possible effective tax rate of 23.8% on capital gains at the federal level.

But if you bequeath appreciated assets to your heirs, they can largely avoid capital gains taxes. Those taxes are calculated according to how much the price has gone up from your "basis" in the asset—basically what you paid for it, subject to adjustment. When you die, the basis of the assets your heirs receive is "stepped up"—increased to their value on the date of your death. That eliminates tax liability on the appreciation of the assets during the time you owned them. Of course, those assets have to be in your estate to qualify for that benefit, but the generous exemptions for estates will help your heirs avoid estate taxes, too.

Consider this example. Tom, a resident of Florida, bought an apartment building for $900,000 that is currently worth $2.2 million. If Tom sells the building now, he must pay an effective tax rate of 23.8% on a $1.3 million capital gain, or $309,400 (23.8% of $1.3 million). But what if he keeps the property and leaves it to his heirs? The basis of the property is stepped up to the full $2.2 million, and they'll owe capital gains taxes only if it appreciates further before they sell it. What's more, the estate tax exemption means they won't owe estate taxes on their inheritance.

Note that Florida doesn't have a state income tax. If Tom resided in a high tax state, such as California or New York, the savings would be even more pronounced.