Did Dad give a tax snag from the grave?

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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
Before he passed away, my father gave me his house to sell and then asked to divide the money with my siblings. He did so with a simple quitclaim deed transfer, putting the property in my name. When I sell the house, will I personally incur a tax obligation?
— O.T. Lovell

Dear O.T.,
There’s a pretty good chance you will incur one, unfortunately.

Though a quitclaim deed may seem like the fastest and most orderly way for a parent to transfer ownership to heirs and assure avoidance of probate, it seldom is the most fiscally prudent option.

Through the quitclaim, you received your father’s house as a gift in the view of the Internal Revenue Service, a gift that will be priced at what your father originally paid for it, not its 2012 market-rate value. So after you sell the place, you’ll likely have to pay a capital gains tax based on the difference between that original purchase price and what it finally sells for. Hopefully, those surely reasonable sibs of yours won’t protest sharing any such tax pain.

The above bad news, I must point out, assumes your father owned the place for a considerable span of at least a decade or so, during which the property would have appreciated in value significantly, most likely. If he was a short-termer there, then the capital gains issue won’t matter much, if at all, since any sales profit would be modest or nonexistent given the depressed market of the past five years.

Had the property been passed along to you (and your siblings) through a simple inheritance or trust established for the heirs, then the home could be sold with no capital gains tax incurred in most cases. In other words, you and the other heirs would have been automatically entitled to what’s called a “step-up in basis.” You would have gotten that same “step-up” even if your father had transferred the property while alive but retained the right to live there, assuming the deal was done correctly.

It’s also worth noting that once any quitclaim transaction is filed, the recipient becomes responsible for all taxes, insurance, liens or anything else attached to the property. If that recipient should happen to take on any debts or liabilities in the form of, say, a divorce, accident or court judgment before the house was sold, then a judgment could be filed against that home as an asset of the recipient. From the sounds of it, this didn’t happen to you, but it has happened to many others.

For the many folks out there now who are contemplating giving their homes to their children before or after death, I heartily recommend consulting a financial planner, estate attorney or other qualified professional to determine your optimal strategy because it will vary according to circumstances. There are several ways to transfer a house with fewer liabilities for the recipients.

By the way, I am quite sorry to hear of your father’s passing. Good luck on the sale.

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