What you paid for your assets and how the Internal Revenue Service values them are not the same considerations, but taxpayers often don’t know the difference.
“This is not the kind of thing you run into every day,” says Thomas H. Ahlbeck, CPA, managing director at SS&G’s Des Plaines, Ill., office. “Some people might only run into this complexity a couple of times in their lifetime.”
However, the wrong basis can add thousands of dollars to your taxes, so it’s important to understand how this can happen, especially as your net worth grows and affairs become more complicated.
Smart Business spoke with Ahlbeck about how to get a handle on this important, but nebulous, accounting concept.
What is basis?
Basis is what the IRS uses as your asset value for determining your gain/loss or taxability of a transaction. For example, if you bought a common stock but don’t know or cannot prove your purchase price, you might have to enter the basis as zero even though you paid significantly more. You’ll pay more taxes on the proceeds you receive — or not be able to write off a loss if the security is worthless.
What is the biggest problem area for figuring basis and how can it be detrimental for your taxes?
Taxpayers are losing a small fortune with nondeductible individual retirement accounts. IRAs can be problematic because you pay thousands of dollars into an IRA and the basis is not easy to track. When people put in after-tax contributions to their IRAs, they might not be keeping track or telling their accountant as it doesn’t have anything to do with their current taxes. Later, unless you can prove those were after-tax contributions, you’ll have to pay taxes on the money again when you take it out.
Once you’re making withdrawals from the IRA, the nondeductible contributions are taken as a percentage of every withdrawal. So, if you put in $100,000 of after-tax dollars originally and the account grows to $150,000, then only two-thirds of that is not taxable and a third of each withdrawal will be taxed.
How is real estate another area where basis is often wrong?
Real estate is another neglected area for basis — particularly primary and secondary residences where accountants aren’t completing a depreciation schedule. Today, many homeowners look at the current market and assume their home will never appreciate. Therefore, they don’t keep records of improvements, which should be added to the basis to narrow any gains when it comes time to sell in 10 or 20 years. This is even more critical for a vacation home because you don’t get the $500,000 exclusion of taxable gain that you might get on your primary home.
Real estate transactions, by their very nature, are held for a sizeable length of time, making it difficult to keep all the records. Your basis can be further complicated because the land and building are held as separate values and the land’s original value is often forgotten when configuring basis for a sale years later. If a property goes through a bankruptcy or debt forgiveness, those also will change the value of the basis.
Another problem is when inheriting or gifting occurs because, again, records can be lost. If someone inherits real estate, the basis value is stepped up to the current market value, which is why an appraisal needs to be done at the time of death. The idea of the increased value, which can happen for no other reason than inflation, is to counteract estate taxes.
However, if a property is gifted, the value of the basis is what the original owner paid for it. Therefore, if a couple jointly own property and one spouse dies, half of the basis will stay at the original purchase price, while the other half will be stepped up to the date-of-death value.
What can you do to prevent some of these difficulties?
The simple rule of thumb is to know the basis of all your assets at all times, meaning what you can use as value against the selling price in the eyes of the IRS. Know what will change the character of an asset, such as when a personal residence becomes rental property. There’s a lot of logic to basis, but with fair market value of property, the contract cost, debt involved, after-tax dollars, inheritance and gifting, the original basis can be confusing and even change without you realizing it.
You also might not recognize the tax consequences of your actions. For example, if you bought a stock for $10,000, you also need to keep track of the reinvestment because it becomes part of the cost to give you a higher basis.
Don’t assume your financial adviser or accountant is tracking basis. If they are, keep an eye on it to ensure they are doing so correctly. Many financial advisers now are tracking basis for stocks and mutual funds, especially with new rules from the IRS, but there can also be basis issues and related loss limitations with a closely held corporation or a partnership.
Know what records you need to have and how long to keep them. When someone gifts you a vacation home, you might not think that you’ll need the paperwork stating what the home originally cost. A lot of people think they only need to save three years of tax records before they throw them out. But as long as the transaction hasn’t been completed, it needs to be tracked.
Thomas H. Ahlbeck, CPA, is a managing director of SS&G’s Des Plaines, Ill., office. Reach him at (800) 869-1834 or TAhlbeck@SSandG.com.
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