How do you pass your family’s house to your children? It’s a pressing question and involves significant tax, legal, and emotional considerations. Unfortunately, it is a topic about which there is much confusion.
This blog post discusses some of the important considerations. But as a blog post, it can only scratch the surface. Anyone looking to efficiently pass on their home is well advised to consult with their own lawyer, tax professional, and in some cases, their banker as well.
To my mind, the primary planning objective of married couples with minor children vis-a-vis their home is to account for what happens if both spouses die. Such couples would want their children taken care of in the most flexible manner possible.
Generally speaking, in such situations, it is often best to work with a lawyer to transfer the primary residence to a revocable living trust (explained below). In the event of both spouses’ deaths, the house would be held by the trust and managed by the trustee of the trust. It could be sold or rented for the benefit of the children, or kept so the children and their guardian(s) could live in the house.
This resolution is generally preferable to leaving a house directly to minor children.
Revocable Living Trusts
What is a revocable living trust? It is generally a written trust (drafted by a lawyer) that owns property the grantor(s) or settlor(s) transfers to the trust. For this sort of planning, usually spouses (the grantors) transfer their home to the trust and designate themselves as the primary beneficiaries of the trust. The trust provides that the grantors’ minor children are the successor beneficiaries. Upon both spouses’ deaths, the trust becomes irrevocable, and a trustee holds the assets and manages them on behalf of the beneficiaries (the minor children).
The best thing about a revocable living trust: as long as the grantor(s) is/are alive, the trust is fully revocable! So mistakes can be easily fixed (working with a lawyer).
Revocable living trusts also generally avoid probate.
One nice thing about a revocable living trust is that it doesn’t change the grantor’s tax situation. All the income of the trust assets remain the taxable income of the grantor. Generally speaking, the grantor’s tax return does not change at all. Further, favorable tax rules, such as the $250K per person exclusion for capital gains on qualified primary residences, apply unchanged.
Parents placing their primary residence in their own revocable living trust does not necessitate the filing of a federal gift tax return (Form 709).
Upon inheriting a house as the beneficiary of a revocable living trust, the child takes a fair market value tax basis in the house (the so-called “step-up in basis”). This makes using a revocable living trust a tax-efficient way of passing a house to the next generation.
Okay, but what about adult children? It’s readily apparent that five-year olds should not own real estate outright. But what about grown children? If a primary goal is simply avoiding probate, why not use a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship instead of a revocable living trust?
Putting an adult child’s name on the title of the parent(s) primary residence (and thus, creating a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship) can lead to a host of issues, but perhaps not the issues that initially come to mind.
Capital Gains Tax
What about the adult child’s capital gain upon the sale of the house after the parent’s death? Is that a reason to use a revocable living trust to house the house (pun intended)?
Well, it turns out the answer is generally No. Assuming the adult child did not contribute to the acquisition of the house, the adult child can take a full fair market value basis in a house acquired from a joint tenancy. Here is an example very loosely based on the example on page 10 of IRS Publication 551:
Example: Joan and Jane owned, as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, Joan’s home. Joan paid $300K for it, Jane paid nothing for it. Upon Joan’s death, the home has a fair market value of $600K. Jane inherits (as the surviving joint tenant) the house from Joan with a $600K basis (a fully stepped-up basis).
If interested, I’ve prepared a technical analysis as to why the surviving non-contributing non-spouse joint tenant receives a full step-up in basis here.
Note that the above full stepped-up basis does not obtain if the gift of a portion of the house was through a tenancy-in-common (instead of through a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship). However, there is little reason to use a tenancy-in-common to transfer a house, because the original owner’s remaining share simply remains in his/her name, and absent other arrangements, passes through probate.
Other Problems with Joint Tenancies
If the capital gains tax upon the original owner’s death isn’t an issue, why not use a joint tenancy to transfer your house to your adult children? Here are some of the considerations.
Capital Gains Tax
Wait, what? I thought you said capital gains taxes were not an issue. They generally aren’t an issue after the original owner’s death. But they can be an issue before his or her death.
What if, during the owner’s lifetime, the house is sold? What if there’s a pressing need to sell the house, perhaps to help pay for long-term care?
The owner/occupant is at least somewhat protected by the $250K per person primary residence gain exclusion. But the adult child is not protected by that exclusion if the home is not their primary residence. The adult child could have to pay capital gains tax (based on their share of the proceeds less their share of the owner’s historic tax basis) on the transaction if the house is sold prior to the owner/occupant’s death.
Loss of Control
Simply put, transferring an interest in your home to another person relinquishes some of your control over the property. You never know if you will need that control in the future. Proceed with significant caution, and consult a trusted lawyer, prior to putting anyone else on the title of your home.
While not a horrible problem, adding an adult child to the title of a house as a gift requires the filing of a Form 709 gift tax return. Due to the high estate and gift tax exemptions, in most cases it is highly unlikely the transfer would trigger actual gift tax.
Disputes Among Adult Children
Adding multiple adult children to the title as joint tenants with rights of survivorship can create issues after the parent’s death. If siblings cannot agree amongst themselves how to handle and/or dispose of the house, the disagreement can be difficult to resolve. Using a revocable living trust (which becomes irrevocable upon the parent’s death) gives the parent the opportunity to work with their lawyer to put in place a trustee and ground rules for how the house is to be managed and/or disposed of after death.
Adult children are people. And people have problems. Divorces, liabilities, bankruptcies, etc. Putting an adult child on the title of a home could subject the home to the adult child’s creditors in a problematic manner.
The above are just some of the considerations to weigh before adding adult children to the title of a home as a joint tenant with rights of survivorship.
Revocable living trusts keep control with the original owner. Further, they facilitate transferring real estate to the next generation in a tax-efficient manner. Based on these advantages and the issues that exist with joint tenancies, I generally prefer revocable living trusts over joint tenancies for primary residences. Using a will can also be effective from a tax perspective, but should be discussed with a lawyer considering state and local real estate laws. Some states have transfer-on-death type real estate deeds, which also should be considered with a lawyer (if that sort of deed is available).
You might be saying, well, I have only one child I want to give my house to. Further, I don’t need to own my house. Why not simply give the house outright to that child during my life and avoid any legal events/issues occurring at my death?
Besides some of the issues discussed above and the full loss of control (which are troublesome enough), an outright gift creates a significant capital gains tax issue for the adult child. This capital gains tax issue exists both before and after the original owner’s death.
Previously, I wrote this example on the blog illustrating the issue:
William lives in a house he purchased in 1970 for $50,000. In 2019 the house is worth $950,000. If William gifts the house to his son Alan in 2019, Alan’s basis in the house is $50,000. However, if William leaves the house to Alan at William’s death, Alan’s basis in the house will be the fair market value of the house at William’s death.
Giving William’s house to Alan during William’s lifetime could increase the capital gains taxable to Alan by $900K! Ouch!
So, whatever you do (a) consult with your lawyer before determining how to pass your house to your children and (b) be very, very hesitant to outright give your house to your child.
There are various ways in which you can transfer your home to your children. In many cases, I believe revocable living trusts are a great way to leave a house to children. You are always well advised to consult with your lawyer before making any decisions on how you want to title your house and how you want to transfer your house. If you do inherit a house from your parents, you should consult with a lawyer regarding titling issues and with your tax professional regarding the tax implications of selling the inherited home.
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