Death (of a Spouse) and Taxes
November 16, 2021
In a “normal” year, about 1.5 million Americans become widows and widowers, but the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased that annual statistic. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University estimates that about 380,000 of the more than 700,000 people in the United States who have died from COVID-19 were married.
Under “normal” circumstances, it may be difficult to comply with tax requirements and deadlines; filing as a widow(er) presents additional challenges. This is a complex topic with the following issues to consider.
Filing the First Year
The IRS stipulates that the year that your spouse dies:
- You can still file a joint return if you didn’t remarry and the executor approves the joint return.
- If either spouse was a nonresident alien at any time during the year, the surviving spouse can’t file a joint return.
- If you do file jointly, include all your income and deductions for the full year, but only your spouse’s income and deductions until the date of death.
- If the deceased spouse owes any taxes that the estate can’t pay, you as the surviving spouse may be liable for the amounts owed.
Filing in the Next Two Years
For two tax years after the year your spouse died, you can file as a qualifying widow(er). This filing status gives you a higher standard deduction and lower tax rate than filing as a single person. You must meet these requirements:
- You haven’t remarried.
- You must have a dependent (not a foster) child who lived with you all year, and you must have paid more than half the maintenance costs of your home.
- You must have been able to file jointly in the year of your spouse’s death, even if you didn’t.
Notifying the IRS
If you are a widow(er) who qualifies to file a joint return, take the following steps:
- Across the top of your IRS Form 1040 tax return for the year of death—above the area where you enter your address, write “Deceased,” your spouse’s name, and the date of death.
- When you’re a surviving spouse filing a joint return and a personal representative hasn’t been appointed, you should sign the return and write “filing as surviving spouse” in the signature area below your signature.
- When you’re a surviving spouse filing a joint return and a personal representative has been appointed, you and the personal representative should sign the return.
- A decedent taxpayer’s tax return can be filed electronically. Follow the specific directions provided by your preparation software for proper signature and notation requirements.
- The deadline to file a final return is the tax filing deadline of the year following the taxpayer’s death.
- If you are a surviving spouse filing a joint return alone, you should sign the return and write “filing as surviving spouse” in the space for your deceased spouse’s signature.
- If a refund is due, there’s one more step. You also should complete and file with the final return a copy of Form 1310, Statement of Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Taxpayer. Although the IRS says you don’t have to file Form 1310 if you are a surviving spouse filing a joint return, you probably should file the form to prevent possible delays.
Other forms and documents you may need include:
- W-2s, 1099s and other tax forms for the year of death, reporting income or expenses paid before the person died.
- Death certificate to prove the date of death in the tax year being reported.
- Form 56 filed by a trustee, executor, administrator, or other person to let the IRS know who is responsible for the person’s estate.
- Form 1041, “U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts” reports receipt of more than $600 in annual gross income (such as dividends, interest, proceeds from the sale of assets) after the person died.
- IRS Publication 559, “Survivors, Executors and Administrators” provides more information about legal requirements.
Note: You can’t file a final joint return with your deceased spouse if you as the surviving spouse remarried before the end of the year of death. The filing status of the decedent in this instance is married filing separately.
Filing an Estate-tax Return
The current estate- and gift-tax exemption is $11.7 million per individual, so not many estates owe tax—only about 1,900 did for 2020, according to the Tax Policy Center. Executors don’t need to file a return if the decedent’s estate is below the exemption.
They may want to file one, however, because then the surviving spouse can have the partner’s unused exemption and add it to their own in many cases.
Estate taxes are normally due nine months after the date of death. But the IRS allows executors to claim the unused exemption for the spouse up to two years after the date of death, in many cases.
Selling a Home and Resulting Exemptions
Survivors who sell a home may take up to $500,000 of home-sale profit tax-free if they haven’t remarried and sell within two years of the partner’s date of death. If they sell later, the exemption drops to $250,000, the standard amount for single filers.
Dealing with Retirement Accounts
Surviving spouses can roll over inherited retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs into their own names, and financial advisers routinely recommend this move.
A new widow(er) should carefully consider options. It’s possible to divide retirement accounts such as IRAs, and to roll over some but not all assets into the survivor’s name. This would leave the remainder in an inherited IRA available for penalty-free payouts to younger spouses.
Either way, heirs of retirement accounts should be sure to name new heirs of their own.
Heirs of these accounts who will face higher taxes as single filers may also want to convert assets to Roth IRAs, which can have tax-free withdrawals—especially if they can convert while still eligible for joint-filing rates and brackets.
Cashing U.S. Savings Bonds
There’s a special rule for U.S. Savings Bonds, from which income generally accrues tax-free until the bonds are cashed in. When the bond owner dies, the accrued interest may be treated as income in respect of a decedent.
In that case, the new owner of the bonds becomes responsible for the tax on the interest accrued during the life of the decedent. (The tax isn’t due, however, until the new owner cashes in the bonds.)
Alternatively, the interest accrued up to the date of death can be reported on the decedent’s final income tax return. That could be a tax-saving choice if he or she is in a lower tax bracket than the beneficiary. If that method is chosen, the person who gets the bonds only includes in income the interest earned after the date of death.
All deductible expenses paid before death can be written off on the final return. In addition, medical bills paid within one year after death may be treated as having been paid by the decedent at the time the expenses were incurred. That means the cost of a final illness can be deducted on the final return even if the bills were not paid until after death.
If deductions are not itemized on the final return, the full standard deduction may be claimed, regardless of when during the year the taxpayer died. Even if the death occurred on January 1, the full standard deduction is available.
Inheriting Property and Money
For deaths that occurred in years other than 2010, the tax basis of any property a taxpayer owns at the time of his or her death is “stepped up” to its date-of-death value. Since the basis is the amount from which any gain or loss will be figured when the new owner ultimately sells the property, this means that the tax on any appreciation that occurred during the taxpayer’s life is essentially forgiven.
The person who inherits the property—a house, say, or stocks and bonds— would owe tax only on appreciation after the time of death. It’s important that you pinpoint date-of-death value as soon as possible—the executor should be able to help—to avoid hassles later on when you sell it. If assets have lost value during the original owner’s life, the tax basis is stepped down to date-of-death value.
Money you inherit is generally not subject to 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.
The death of a spouse not only presents emotional distress resulting from the loss of a loved one, but it also forces a widow(er) to deal with income tax issues never before faced. By keeping at insureyouknow.org, copies of a spouse’s death certificate, medical bills, income records, property assessments, and wills, you’ll be able to access required documents when you file your income tax return following the death of a spouse.
Planning to Retire? Find Answers to Social Security Questions
January 27, 2021
Social Security provides benefits to about one-fifth of the American population and serves as a vital protection for working men and women, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will pay approximately one trillion dollars in Social Security benefits to roughly 70 million people in 2021. Almost eight million people will receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), on average, each month during 2021. Beyond those who receive Social Security benefits, about 178 million people will pay Social Security taxes in 2021 and will benefit from the program in the future. That means nearly every American has an interest in Social Security, and SSA is committed to protecting their investment in these vital programs.
Social Security payments are adjusted each year to keep pace with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. The 1.3 percent Social Security cost-of-living adjustment for 2021 is down from 1.6 percent in 2020. The average monthly Social Security benefit in January 2021 was $1,543. The maximum possible monthly Social Security benefit in 2021 for someone who retires at full retirement age is $3,148.
The most convenient way to get information and use online services from SSA is to visit www.ssa.gov or to call SSA at 800-772-1213 or at 800-325-0778 (TTY) if you’re deaf or hard of hearing. SSA staff answers phone calls from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekdays. You can use SSA’s automated services via telephone, 24 hours a day.
What is the best age to start your benefits?
There is no one “best age” for everyone. Ultimately, it’s your choice. You should make an informed decision about when to apply for benefits based on your personal situation.
Your monthly benefit amount can differ greatly based on the age when you start receiving benefits.
- If you start receiving your benefits as early as age 62, before your full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced based on the number of months you receive benefits before you reach your full retirement age.
- At your full retirement age or later, you will receive a larger monthly benefit for a shorter period. If you wait until age 70 to start your benefits, your benefit amount will be higher because you will receive delayed retirement credits for each month you delay filing for benefits. There is no additional benefit increase after you reach age 70, even if you continue to delay starting benefits.
- The amount you receive when you first get benefits sets the base for the amount you will receive for the rest of your life.
What should you consider before you start drawing benefits?
- Are you still working? If you plan to continue working while receiving benefits, there are limits on how much you can earn each year between age 62 and full retirement age and still get all of your benefits. Once you reach full retirement age, your earnings do not affect your benefits.
- What is your life expectancy? If you come from a long-lived family, you may need the extra money more in later years, particularly if you may outlive pensions or annuities with limits on how long they are paid. If you are not in good health, you may decide to start your benefits earlier.
- Will you still have health insurance? If you stop working, not only will you lose your paycheck, but you also may lose employer-provided health insurance. Although there are exceptions, most people will not be covered by Medicare until they reach age 65. Your employer should be able to tell you if you will have health insurance benefits after you retire or if you are eligible for temporary continuation of health coverage. If you have a spouse who is employed, you may be able to switch to their health insurance.
- Should you apply for Medicare? If you decide to delay starting your benefits past age 65, be sure to go online and file for Medicare. You will need to apply for Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) three months before you turn age 65. If you don’t sign up for Medicare Part B when you’re first eligible at age 65, you may have to pay a late enrollment penalty for as long as you have Medicare coverage. Even if you have health insurance through a current or former employer or as part of your severance package, you should find out if you need to sign up for Medicare. Some health insurance plans change automatically at age 65.
How can you get a personalized retirement benefit estimate?
Choosing when to retire is an important and personal decision. The best way to start planning for your future is by creating a my Social Security account. With your personal my Social Security account, you can verify your earnings and use SSA’s Retirement Calculator to get an estimate of your retirement benefits.
What happens to Social Security payments when a recipient dies?
- If a person who was receiving Social Security benefits dies, a payment is not due for the month of his death.
- In most cases, funeral homes notify SSA that a person has died by using a form available to report the death.
- The person serving as executor of the decedent’s estate or the surviving spouse also can report the death to SSA.
- Upon the death of a Social Security recipient, survivors are generally given a lump sum payment of $255.
- Survivor benefits may be available, depending on several factors, including the following:
- If the widow or widower has reached full retirement age, they can get the deceased spouse’s full benefit. The survivor can apply for reduced benefits as early as age 60, in contrast to the standard earliest claiming age of 62.
- If the survivor qualifies for Social Security on their own record, they can switch to their own benefit anytime between ages 62 and 70 if their own payment would be more.
- An ex-spouse of the decedent also might be able to claim benefits, as long as they meet some specific qualifications.
- For minor children of a person who died, benefits also may be available, as well as to surviving spouse who is caring for the children.
How can you start receiving Social Security benefits?
- To start your application, go to SSA’s Apply for Benefits page and submit your application online.
- After SSA makes a decision about your application, you’ll receive a confirmation letter in the mail. If you included information about other family members when you applied, SSA will let you know if they may be able to receive benefits from your application.
- You can check the status of your application online using your personal my Social Security account. If you are unable to check your status online, you can call SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekdays.
- You can do most of your business with SSA online. If you cannot use these online services, your local Social Security office can help you apply. Although SSA offices are closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees from those offices are assisting people by telephone. You can find the phone numbers for your local office by using the Field Office Locator and looking under Social Security Office Information.
What if you want to withdraw your application?
After you have submitted your application, you have up to 12 months to withdraw it. You will be required to repay any benefits you’ve already received. Learn more about Withdrawing Your Social Security Retirement Application.
At insureyouknow.org, you can keep track of applications you submit to SSA and responses you receive for Social Security benefits. You also can file statements and notices you get from SSA throughout the years ahead during your retirement.
CARES Acts in Action
January 14, 2021
In response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Trump on March 27, 2020. The CARES Act made it easier for millions of U.S. workers to withdraw or borrow money from their retirement plans through December 30, 2020. People under the age of 59.5 affected by the coronavirus were allowed to take a distribution of up to $100,000 from an IRA, 401(k), or similar account without penalty. It also permitted loans of up to $100,000.
Usually, withdrawing funds from a tax-deferred account before age 59.5 would result in a 10 percent penalty on top of any income taxes incurred. But under the temporary rules part of the CARES Act, people with pandemic-related financial troubles could withdraw without penalty up to $100,000 from any combination of their tax-deferred plans, including 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and traditional individual retirement accounts. The rules applied to plans only if the employee’s employer opted in.
Some plans already permitted hardship withdrawals under certain conditions, and the rules for those were loosened in 2019. But the CARES Act rules were even more lenient by allowing virus-related hardship withdrawals to be treated as taxable income, but the liability was automatically split over three years unless the account holder chose otherwise. The tax can be avoided if the money is put back into a tax-deferred account within three years.
Almost 60 percent of Americans withdrew or borrowed money from their IRA or 401(k) during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey from Kiplinger and digital wealth management company Personal Capital. Most U.S. retirement accounts were already underfunded and the pandemic caused a significant number of Americans to withdraw money, potentially setting them back even further. They will now have to work longer or delay retirement in order to rebuild their savings.
“The past year rocked the confidence of most Americans saving for retirement,” Mark Solheim, editor of Kiplinger Personal Finance, said in a release. “With many people dipping into their retirement savings or planning to work longer, 2020 will have a lasting impact for years to come.”
When it comes to drawing down savings, younger workers have been more willing to withdraw from retirement accounts during the pandemic. A Transamerica survey found that 43 percent of millennials have either taken out a loan or withdrawal from a retirement account or plan to do so in the near future, compared to 27 percent of Generation Xers and 11 percent of baby boomers.
Boomers were much more likely to completely rule out withdrawing from their retirement accounts, with nearly 3 in 4 (73 percent) saying such a move was out of the question. In contrast, 36 percent of millennials and 56 percent of Gen Xers say they won’t take money from their retirement accounts to deal with financial shortfalls attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retirement Savings Sacrifices
Many workers are sacrificing their retirement savings in order to keep afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the original CARES Act has expired, taking an early withdrawal from a retirement account can have far-reaching implications. You may not only have to pay a 10 percent penalty, but you’ll also lose out on having your money earn interest for a longer period of time.
As a result, you may likely have to work longer in order to have enough money for retirement if you withdraw funds from your account now. Nearly a third of Americans say the pandemic has already led to a change in their expected retirement age. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the economy has risen to the top of survey respondents’ list of obstacles with 49 percent saying it is the top barrier to achieving a financially secure retirement. The economy was followed by 33 percent claiming a lack of savings and 32 percent blaming health care costs as reasons to delay retirement.
Emergency Savings Accounts
Effects of the pandemic on emergency savings accounts have brought to light how few households have set aside money inside a retirement plan or for education expenses and it has prompted more employers to start their own programs. For now, about 10 percent of large employers offer some type of support to encourage emergency savings accounts.
But the scope of the damage caused by the pandemic means that even the traditional emergency savings advice of putting aside roughly three to six months of basic living expenses hasn’t been enough to provide a secure provision for an emergency. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have lost incomes and work. An employee who lost a job early in the pandemic could have easily used up all his savings while being unemployed.
But withdrawing funds from a 401(k) has consequences, such as increased tax bills and possibly sacrificing future retirement income. According to survey data of 1,902 U.S. workers by Edelman Financial Engines, one in five Americans is considering taking an early withdrawal. But the survey also found that many Americans who have done so regret it.
For most borrowers, doing so was for an essential reason—35 percent spent their funds on housing, and 7 percent took a loan due to a loss of income. Some did so for less pressing reasons, for example, about 20 percent borrowed to pay off credit card debt and 8 percent funded a car purchase.
Borrowers admit they didn’t understand the consequences or alternatives or not doing enough research on other options available. Many people say they regret their decision for this reason—about 41 percent of people who took hardship withdrawals and 42 percent who took a loan regret it because of a lack of understanding.
Others say they wish they’d understood the other options available. During the pandemic, many lenders have helped to ease the burden on Americans facing financial hardship. As part of the CARES Act, all federally-backed mortgages had the option of forbearance. Banks across the country offered help programs for loans ranging from mortgages to personal loans.
According to Edelman, some wish they’d turned to those programs before making a long-term commitment in reducing their retirement savings. Of people who took hardship withdrawals, 52 percent said they wish they’d explored other options first, while 44 percent of those who took a loan said the same.
Overall, most wish they’d consulted a professional before taking funds from their 401(k). Four out of five borrowers who regret the withdrawal or loan say that consulting a financial advisor would have helped their decision making.
CARES Act II
On December 27, 2020, President Trump signed H.R. 133, another stimulus bill that Congress passed on December 21. This legislation extends unemployment assistance not only for employees but also for independent contractors and other self-employed individuals for 11 weeks. The bill includes the “Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act of 2020,” which provides for an extension from December 31, 2020 until March 14, 2021 of the CARES Act’s unemployment provisions, including a new form of benefits for all self-employed individuals: pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA).
The original CARES Act provided PUA benefits for up to $600 a week for as many as 39 weeks, retroactive to January 27, 2020. The new stimulus bill, CARES Act II, halves that amount and limits PUA to $300/week. Those eligible for PUA also will receive an additional $300/week through the end of the extension period, whereas CARES Act I had added $600/week in federal stimulus payments. Finally, the new stimulus bill provides independent contractors with paid sick and paid family leave benefits through March 14, 2021.
CARES Act II contains a new provision: unemployed or underemployed independent contractors who have an income mix from self-employment and wages paid by an employer are still eligible for PUA. Under CARES Act I, any such worker was typically eligible only for a state-issued benefit based on their wages. Under CARES Act II, the individual now is eligible for an additional weekly benefit of $100 if he earned at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income. The $100 weekly payment which would be added to the $300 weekly benefit, also will expire on March 14.
If the original CARES Act or CARES Act II applies to your personal financial situation, you may want to consult a financial advisor about decisions you made in 2020 or plan to make in 2021. Then, keep a record of all your financial decisions at InsureYouKnow.org so you’ll be prepared for additional financial challenges or government stimulus opportunities in the new year.