Death and taxes may be equally inevitable, but the taxman demands the last word. Death does not excuse a final accounting with the IRS. In fact, taxes can further complicate the lives of survivors. Federal estate taxes could be due, and state inheritance taxes could come into play, too. Here, though, our focus is federal income taxes.
The final income tax return. When a taxpayer dies, a new taxpaying entity -- taxpayer's estate -- is born to make sure no taxable income falls through the cracks. Income is taxed either on the taxpayer's final return, on the return of the beneficiary who acquires the right to receive the income, or, if the estate receives $600 or more of income, on the estate's income tax return.
The chore of filing the taxpayer's final return usually falls to the executor or administrator of the estate, but if neither is named, a survivor must do it. The return is filed on the same form that would have been used if the taxpayer were still alive, but deceased is written after the taxpayer's name. The filing deadline is April 15 of the year following the taxpayer's death.
Reporting income. Only income earned between the beginning of the year and the date of death should be reported on the final return. For taxpayers who use the cash method of accounting, as most do, income is considered earned as it is actually received or made available to them. Taxpayers who use the accrual method of accounting, on the other hand, count income as earned when they actually earn it, regardless of when they receive it. The distinction is important because some income that might logically seem to belong on the decedent's final return is considered “income in respect of a decedent” and is taxable either to the estate or to the person who receives it.
Income in respect of a decedent encompasses only income that the decedent had a right to receive at the time of death but that is not reported on the final return. It does not include earnings on savings or investments that accrue after death. Say a taxpayer who has a substantial amount in money-market mutual funds dies June 30. Only interest earned up to and including that date would be reported on the final tax return. Earnings after that date are taxable to the beneficiary of the account, or to the estate.
That can create some hassles because the payer -- a mutual fund, bank or broker, for example -- will report income to the IRS on a 1099 form. Although you should try to get ownership of the account changed as quickly as possible after the death of the owner, the 1099 income report may well show more income assigned to the decedent than it should. In such cases, you must report the entire amount on Schedule B of the decedent's return and then deduct the amount that is being reported by the estate or other beneficiary who actually received the income.
Money you inherit is generally not subject to the federal income tax. If you inherit a $100,000 certificate of deposit, for example, the $100,000 is not taxable. Only interest on it from the time you become the owner is taxed. If you receive interest that accrued but was not paid prior to the owner's death, however, it is considered income in respect of a decedent and is taxable on your return.
Inherited IRAs and retirement accounts. A major exception to the general rule that inheritances are not subject to the income tax -- and one that is taking on more and more importance -- is that money in IRAs, company retirement plans, including 401(k)s and 403(b)s, and annuities is treated as income in respect of a decedent and therefore taxed to the heir.