A death in the family is an event that can raise a variety of complex financial issues related to the distribution of assets to heirs and federal taxation. When a person passes away, federal taxes may be due on income the person earned during the year before death, as well as income the decedent's assets earn after death. The Internal Revenue Service also imposes an estate tax that generally applies to estates with assets in excess of $5 million.
Final Income Tax Return
If a decedent was required to file an income tax return based on his tax filing status and income level before death, the personal representative or executor of his estate must file a final tax return on his behalf. The final income tax return may require payment of additional income taxes, but it could also result in a federal tax refund. If the decedent was self-employed, he may also owe self-employment tax.
Estate Tax Return
A decedent's financial accounts and property become a pool of assets -- called an estate -- that exists until the assets are distributed to the decedent's heirs. The assets in the estate are distributed according to the decedent's will, but resolving an estate is a complex process that can take months to complete. The assets in an estate can earn income before they are distributed to heirs and that income may be subject to federal income tax. The executor of the estate has to file an income tax return for the estate if it has a gross income of $600 or more.
The estate tax is a federal tax that applies to the value of assets a decedent leaves behind to heirs. According to the IRS, a decedent can pass on $5.12 million worth of assets to heirs tax-free as of 2012. Assets in excess of $5.12 million are subject to estate tax. If the decedent gave gifts of substantial value during life, he may not be eligible for the full $5.12 million tax exemption: gifts in excess of $13,000 to a single recipient during a year reduce the $5.12 million credit.
Tax on Inheritance
The recipients of inheritance generally do not pay any federal tax on the assets they receive. According to Nolo, seven states impose taxes on the recipients of inheritance: Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. If you inherit a tax-advantaged retirement account like an Individual Retirement Account or 401(k) fed with pretax or tax-deductible contributions, distributions you receive from the account are treated as taxable income.
- Internal Revenue Service: Topic 356 - Decedents
- Internal Revenue Service: Publication 559 - Main Content
- Internal Revenue Service: Estate Tax
- Internal Revenue Service: Frequently Asked Questions on Estate Taxes
- Intuit: Death in the Family
- Nolo: Inheritance Tax
- Internal Revenue Service: Publication 950 - Main Content
Gregory Hamel has been a writer since September 2008 and has also authored three novels. He has a Bachelor of Arts in economics from St. Olaf College. Hamel maintains a blog focused on massive open online courses and computer programming.