Harnessing the Power of Step-Up in Basis

Step-up in basis is something that the average person only needs to deal with once or twice in their lifetime. If you’re not sure what this means or how it relates to retirement planning, don’t worry: we’ll explain in detail.

There are two main scenarios in step-up in basis you may want to focus on:

  1. You inherited property or stock.
  2. You own a highly appreciated asset and want tax efficiency on the future disposal of the asset

What is Basis?

Basis is a tax term that the IRS and tax professionals assume everyone understands, but many don’t. “Basis” is your original purchase price of an asset. Let’s say you purchased a stock for $100. Your basis is $100.

If you purchase a real estate property for $300,000, this initial purchase price is your basis. Real estate does have a few additional nuances to determining cost basis, but for simplicity, this example works.

Cost basis is required when determining the gain or loss of a stock or other security; the difference between the sale price of an asset and the basis, or purchase price, of an asset is your gain.

Understanding your basis is crucial when talking about a “step-up.”

What is Step-up?

Let’s say that you purchased a property for $100,000 and have owned it for quite some time. Then in today’s market, you sell the property for $500,000. The difference between the purchase price and sale price means that you have a $400,000 gain.

If, instead of selling that same property, you decide to gift the property to your child (or anyone else), your child’s basis will be the same $100,000 basis that you had before you gifted the property. If your child decides to sell that property, they will have to pay taxes on the property’s appreciation in value beyond the $100,000 basis.

If you keep the property rather than selling or gifting it during your lifetime, and then your child inherits that property after you pass away, that is when a step-up in basis occurs. Instead of your original $100,000 basis carrying over to your child, their basis in the property will now “step-up” to the current market value of the property at the time of your death. Thus, if the value of the property at the time of your death is $400,000, your child (or whoever inherits the property) will have a basis of $400,000.

This difference matters. In the scenario where your child receives the property as a gift and later sells it for, let’s say $425,000, they will owe tax on the difference between their $100,000 basis and the $425,000 sale price which is a $325,000 gain. In a scenario where your child inherits the property and later sells it for $425,000, they could owe tax on the difference between their stepped-up basis of $400,0000 and the $425,000 sale price which is a $25,000 gain. The table below shows a side-by-side comparison of the example numbers in these scenarios.

Gifted Property Inherited Property
Basis $100,000 $400,000
Market Value at Sale $425,000 $425,000
Taxable Gain $325,000 $25,000


The more the property appreciates in value beyond the time of a gift or inheritance, the higher the potential taxable gain will be. But an inherited property with a stepped-up basis is more favorable as it will likely reduce what the potential taxable gain could be compared to a gifted property with a carryover, or transferred, basis.

Put simply, a step-up in basis helps relieve inheritors of what could otherwise be massive capital gains taxes.

Example of Step-up in Basis and Stock

Many people hold Tesla, Apple, NVIDIA, and other stock as part of their portfolio. For this example, you purchased $100,000 worth of stock many years ago, and today it’s worth $500,000. You might be receiving dividends, and this may be all you really need in terms of income from the stock.

If you were to sell all the stock today at a $400,000 gain, this would trigger substantial capital gains tax. Another option aside from selling could be to hold onto that stock with the plan to pass it onto your beneficiaries as their inheritance. With this intention, you do need to have faith in the company for it to at least maintain its stock value or ideally continue to increase in value; be aware of the risk that the stock’s value may decline by the time your beneficiary does inherit it.

Let’s say you choose the second option to continue holding the stock, and by the time your heirs receive the stock, it is worth $1 million. By doing so, you avoid the capital gains tax that you would have paid if you liquidated the stock during your lifetime. And your heirs inherit the stock with a stepped-up basis of $1 million.

Your heirs could sell the $1 million in stock at the time they inherit it without a capital gains tax.  If they hold the stock in their own portfolio, they will not owe tax until the stock appreciates above their $1 million basis.

Dividend Reinvesting

Dividend reinvestment is one strategy that we see a lot of people engage in. What this means is that if you buy a dividend-paying stock, each dividend you receive will purchase more of that same stock. Each dividend purchase creates basis in that stock.

To correctly calculate the gain at the time the stock is liquidated (sold), you need to know the basis on each of these buys. Currently, most custodians do keep a record of basis for you that can be viewed on most statements or online in your account. As long as the custodian has a record of the basis, it will also be reported on the tax form generated for that account.

In contrast, when your children or someone else inherits the stock from you, your basis is no longer relevant because the inheritor’s basis will be the stock’s value at the time it is received.

How to Determine Basis at Inheritance

The IRS is easy to work with when dealing with step-up in basis. Your basis is the value of the inherited asset on the day of death. For stock or other securities, you can use historical values and all the data that is available on stock price value for a given day.

Real estate will need to be appraised for value at the time of death.

Should You Hold Something for Step-up in Basis or Diversify Because of Risk?

You may or may not want to hold an asset for the purpose of step-up in basis. Perhaps you need the money and want to sell the investment. You may also see that the investment’s value is likely to decrease soon, so you decide selling while the price is high is optimal.

Ideally, you should speak to financial professionals to understand the risks and benefits of selling versus holding.

You may have a $1 million portfolio and the stock in question is worth 10% of your total portfolio. If the stock has a good run and now accounts for 20% or 30% of your total portfolio value, you’re increasing your concentration risk by continuing to hold it. A significant decline in the value of that particular stock can negatively impact a substantial part of your portfolio, so it’s something to think through.

Diversifying by selling some or all that concentrated stock will likely require you to pay taxes, but it may be a better option long-term because it allows you to safeguard your total portfolio by spreading your dollars out. Speaking to your financial professional(s) on this topic can help with your decision, because your situation is unique, and you may not want to carry such a high risk.

If you want to talk to us and have us evaluate your situation, we’re more than happy to schedule a call with you.

Click here to schedule a call with us to discuss your step-up in basis situation.