houseDear Liza, My father passed away in 2002 when the federal estate tax limit was $1million. At that time my mother chose to put their home in the Bypass Trust.  She has now passed and the home is worth $1.4 million.  Do we inherit tax free or pay taxes on the amount over $1million?  It’s nice when I get a question that has a clear-cut answer AND an answer that most people would be happy to recieve. And this one’s got both, sort of: you will inherit the assets held in the Bypass Trust free of estate tax, even on the appreciation since 2002. That’s in fact why your mother put the house in the Bypass Trust, to take it (and its appreciation) out of her taxable estate.

However, here’s what you aren’t going to get: a step-up in basis to the date of death value of the house ($1.4 million). Capital gains are calculated on the difference between what you bought an asset for (the basis) and what you sold it for (called gain, if you sold it for more money than you paid for it.) So, a step-up in basis reduces the capital gains taxes that will be due when that asset is sold. A step-up in basis is a good thing if you own appreciated assets that you plan to sell.

When your Dad died, in 2002, your Mom got a step up in basis for the house — if, for example, they’d bought that house in 1953 for $25,000, she would have gotten a new basis of $1 million for that house in 2002, since that’s what it was worth when he died. If she’d decided to sell the house after your father’s death, she would only  have had to pay capital gains on the post-death appreciation. (I’m assuming the house was community property because I live and work in California. In other states, the survivor only gets a step up on the assets owned by the deceased spouse.)

But the way the tax code works is that if an asset is held in the Bypass Trust, you don’t get to take another step-up in basis at the second death. It’s kind of a good-news/bad-news story: you don’t have to pay estate tax on the assets (and all of the appreciation) on the assets held in the Bypass Trust. This is why Bypass Trusts exist, they shelter assets and appreciation from the estate tax. But if you sell the house now that your mother’s dead, you will have to pay capital gain taxes on the gain ($400,000) earned since your father’s death.