Paying Tax on Your Inherited Money

Here’s what you need to know about taxes when you inherit money or property, including the federal estate tax and the states where inheritance taxes are on the books. 

By Karen Lynch | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

5 Min Read | February 1, 2022 in Money



Anyone inheriting money or property will want to know about inheritance, estate, and capital gains taxes.

Most heirs will find that they don’t owe these taxes, due to exemptions.

But tax rules change, so it’s wise to keep informed and plan accordingly.

There’s an old saying that “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” Ironically, though, the saying seldom applies to death and taxes. Most Americans don’t have to pay an inheritance tax when they inherit money or property. Still, there might be some complications you need to clear up if someone has included you in their will. For instance:


  • Requirements for inheritance taxes vary from state to state and may change from year to year. 
  • The executor of the will – the person legally responsible for carrying out the deceased’s wishes – may have to pay estate taxes before any assets are passed on to you.
  • Capital gains taxes apply when you sell inherited property or other assets, and how to do that confuses many people.    
  • Rules for inherited Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) accounts changed recently under a new law.


The Difference Between Estate Tax and Inheritance Tax

Perhaps chief among the complications that need to be clarified when someone dies is that there are two different types of taxes that might apply: estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Estate taxes are paid by the deceased’s estate before any money or property passes on to you, but if inheritance taxes are owed, they are paid by you, as the beneficiary. And because the first $11.7 million worth of an estate is exempt from federal estate tax in 2021,1 the vast majority of Americans don’t have to pay it. There is no federal inheritance tax.


Do You Owe Tax on Your Inheritance?

Only six states had an inheritance tax on the books in 2021:     

  • Iowa.      
  • Kentucky.      
  • Maryland.      
  • Nebraska.     
  • New Jersey.      
  • Pennsylvania.

You would only owe inheritance tax if the money or property willed to you comes from someone in one of these states. The tax kicks in at different asset levels at rates that vary depending on the state, your relationship with the deceased, and other factors. You might pay 1% to 20% of the total value of your inheritance. Or you might not, due to exemptions and reductions for spouses and other family members.2


Looking at New Jersey, for instance, spouses, parents, children, and grandchildren are exempt from the 11%-16% inheritance tax on assets over $25,000. But siblings and the partners of deceased children would have to pay.3 In Nebraska, meanwhile, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews are taxed on inherited assets over $15,000 at a rate of 13%. Closer relatives such as parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren are taxed on inheritances over $40,000 at a rate of 1%, and spouses are exempt.4


What’s an Estate Tax?

The federal government and about a dozen states have estate taxes which, as the name implies, are paid by the estate and not its heirs. Before any money or property is passed on to you, the executor of the will may have to pay estate taxes that could shrink your inheritance. But few people pay estate taxes, either. 


That’s largely because of the high bar that is set before an estate tax even applies. Federal estate tax exemptions have increased from $1.5 million in 2004 to $11.7 million in 2021 and $12.06 million for 2022. According to the IRS, most relatively simple estates below those thresholds do not have to file an estate tax return.5 The Tax Policy Center has estimated that fewer than 0.1% of the estimated 2.8 million Americans who died in 2020 were subject to a federal estate tax.6 In the states with estate taxes on the books, the exemption ranged from $1 million to $5.68 million as of 2019.7 

What Heirs Need to Know About Capital Gains Taxes

You may end up owing capital gains taxes if you sell inherited assets like real estate, stocks, and bonds. Federal capital gains tax is paid on whatever value you gain (or lose) when you sell a thing, compared with what you paid for it. Capital gains on inheritances are considered long-term, no matter how long you hold them, and so are subject to 0%-20% tax rates as of 2021, depending on your income.8 Many states have their own capital gains taxes.

Here, the important thing to know is that you calculate your gain or loss on the sale of an inherited asset based on its fair market value when the deceased died and you inherited it, not the original purchase price. This is called the “stepped-up” value. Since the profit on the sale of a house, for example, would be lower if based on the stepped-up value as opposed to the original purchase price, less tax would be owed. It might be best to consult a tax advisor or estate attorney when dealing with capital gains taxes on inheritances.


Recent Rule Changes for Inherited IRAs

The 2019 Secure Act accelerates required minimum withdrawals/distributions from inherited IRAs, unless you’re the spouse. In the past, you could stretch the distributions and associated tax payments over your expected lifetime. As of 2020, the assets must all be withdrawn within 10 years of the death of the account holder, with taxes due for each withdrawal.


The Takeaway

Few Americans pay inheritance taxes when someone wills them money or property. Nevertheless, the federal and state rules and exemptions regarding inheritance, estate, and capital gains taxes on the sale of inherited property are complicated enough to require analysis and advance planning by anyone who thinks they are coming into inherited money.

Karen Lynch

Karen Lynch is a journalist who has covered global business, technology, finance, and related public policy issues for more than 30 years.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

Related Articles

What Is the Education Tax Credit?


Learn how two different education tax credits can help offset school costs for college students, life-long learners, and anyone looking to improve their job skills.


Tell me more

What Is the Childcare Tax Credit?


The childcare tax credit helps working adults earn a tax break not only for expenses related to childcare, but for taking care of other types of dependents, as well.


Tell me more

How to File Taxes


You may feel that filing your own taxes is difficult. But doing it yourself can be easier than you might think – every year, more people are doing it themselves.


Tell me more

The material made available for you on this website, Credit Intel, is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax or financial advice. If you have questions, please consult your own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.