The death of a spouse is one of the most difficult things imaginable. Besides the emotional toll, surviving spouses typically confront financial issues, which often trigger tax-related questions and consequences.
The financial issues that arise following the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It's not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.
Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse's income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.
Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.
If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse's taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.
The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there's a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse's gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.
It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses' passing.
There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased's estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse's unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don't file in a timely manner, you'll lose this exemption, so don't neglect this task.
Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”