Death and taxes are not only inevitable, they often tag-team. Such is the situation when you are the beneficiary of a death benefit from a deceased family member or friend. Following a respectful mourning period, beneficiaries will have to make some decisions and file some paperwork to help the decedent’s plans reach fruition. One area that requires special attention is the tax consequences of receiving a death benefit. Most of the time the tax obligations of an inheritance are simple and clear, but sometimes complications can arise.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
While many death benefits are tax-free, there are some situations in which taxes may be due.
A death benefit is a sum of money paid to one or more beneficiaries when the owner of the death benefit dies. Do not confuse death benefits with the wealth already existing in an account. Rather, death benefits are life insurance payouts on top of the assets accumulated in the decedent’s account. Death benefits are tied to life insurance policies, retirement plans and annuities. Death benefits can be paid out as lump sums either immediately or at some future date, or they might be paid out in installments over time, as is the case with annuities. The primary question is: How do the types of death benefits and the methods of payout affect the taxes of beneficiaries?
In just about all cases, the death benefits paid by insurance policies are free from income tax. However, tax may be due on any interest earned by the death benefit. This situation occurs when the payout of death benefits is delayed. Interest accrues on the funds during the delay, and that interest is taxable when the funds are eventually paid out. If the interest exceeds $600, you will receive IRS Form 1099-INT that specifies the tax you owe because of delayed death benefits.
Qualified Retirement Accounts
Certain retirement accounts such as 401(k)s (but not IRAs) can hold life insurance policies with death benefits that pay beneficiaries when the account owner dies. Each year, the account owner must pay income tax on the insurance premiums attributed to pure life insurance protection, known as the “basis in the contract.” When you die, your beneficiary may owe some taxes on the death benefit amount. This tax liability applies to the amount of the cash value minus the basis in the contract.
A variable annuity is a tax-advantaged account in which contributions can grow tax-deferred until withdrawn. They are "variable" because their returns aren’t guaranteed and depend on the performance of the annuities' investments.
Annuities accept contributions up to a certain date and then start paying out assets for a set number of years or until the death of the annuity owner. Most variable annuities come with a death benefit that pays beneficiaries upon the death of the annuitant (who need not be the owner).
It is important to separate the payments that stem from the annuity’s investment value and the payments arising from a death benefit. Taxes on annuity payouts are assessed only on the money earned in the annuity and not on the original contributions, which are returned tax-free. Similarly, if the annuity has a death benefit, only the portion of the death benefit in excess of the premiums paid for the death benefit is taxed.
Eric Bank is a senior business, finance and real estate writer, freelancing since 2002. He has written thousands of articles about business, finance, insurance, real estate, investing, annuities, taxes, credit repair, accounting and student loans. Eric writes articles, blogs and SEO-friendly website content for dozens of clients worldwide, including get.com, badcredit.org and valuepenguin.com. Eric holds two Master's Degrees -- in Business Administration and in Finance. His website is ericbank.com.