What is Inherited Stock

As the name suggests, inherited stock refers to stock an individual obtains through an inheritance, after the original holder of the equity passes away. The increase in value of the stock, from the time the decedent purchased it until his or her death, does not get taxed. Therefore, the beneficiaries of the stock will only be liable for income on capital gains earned during their own lifetimes.

Key Takeaways

  • Inherited stocks are equities obtained by heirs of an inheritance, after the original stock holder has passed. 
  • The spike in a stock's value that occurs between the time the decedent bought the stock, until her or she dies, does not get taxed.
  • Inherited stock is not valued at its original cost basis, which refers to its initial value, at the time of its purchase.
  • When a beneficiary inherits a stock, its cost basis is stepped-up to the value of the security, at the date of inheritance.

Breaking Down Inherited Stock

Inherited stock, unlike gifted securities, is not valued at its original cost basis--a term used by tax accountants to describe the original value of an asset. When an individual inherits a stock, its cost basis is stepped-up to the value of the security, at the date of the inheritance. In the eyes of the federal government, stepped-up cost basis is an expensive provision of the tax code, which only benefits wealthy Americans. Consequently, candidates for elected office often preach the idea of eliminating the stepped-up cost basis, in an effort to broadly appeal to middle- and lower-class voters.

History of Inherited Stock

The United States has taxed the transfer of wealth from a decedent's estate to his heirs since the passage of the 1916 Revenue Act, which complemented the existing income tax, in order to help finance America’s entry into World War One. Proponents of this legislation argued that taxing estates can help raise much-needed revenue, while simultaneously discouraging the concentration of wealth among just a small percentage of individuals. Opponents of the estate tax, who frequently refer to it as the "Death Tax", argue that it’s unfair to tax someone’s wealth after it has already been taxed as income. 

The taxation of inherited stock is a highly-contentious element in the debate over the taxation of inheritances, but it's also part of the conversation about capital gain taxation methodologies. For practical purposes, governments only tax capital gains after the underlying asset has been sold. This differs from income taxes, which must be paid annually. Proponents of the stepped-up basis exemption argue that capital gains should be taxed more lightly than income, in order to promote investment in the economy through increased consumer spending.

Inherited Stock and Estate Planning

Because heirs will not have to pay capital gains taxes on stock that are unsold at the time of a decedent's death, during their living years, benefactors should resist the urge to sell off the equities they plan to bequeath to their heirs.

[Important: Heirs to stocks cannot claim a loss for losses incurred while the original owner was alive. Therefore, if a decedent purchased a share of stock for $100, then the value plummeted to $25 by the date he passed, an heir's cost basis would be $25, and that $75 loss may not be used to offset gains with other investments.]