In the US, what are the downsides to being someone's beneficiary?

Presumably there's some tax I have to pay on the additional income I receive as the beneficiary, but it would still be a net-positive.

All my research on this topic has yielded results about being the executor of an estate, which potentially involves a lot of extra work, but that's a completely different story.

Are there any additional financial, legal, or other obligations I would have to fulfil? Perhaps lots of annoying paperwork? Would I be responsible to pay off their debts with the money I receive?

  • Are you the executor or just an heir? – Pete B. Jan 10 '17 at 21:04
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    I am a friend of this person (no "legal" relationship to them: I'm not their family, not married to anyone related, etc.). – Eilon Jan 10 '17 at 21:28
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    @Eilon: the fact you aren't related to them doesn't determine whether you're an executor as Pete asks. Executors are named in the will (here in England, and I suppose probably in the US, they can decline to accept the role). The polite thing to do if you're going to name someone executor is to tell them, though, so if your friend hasn't told you then you probably aren't. – Steve Jessop Jan 11 '17 at 2:45
  • @SteveJessop understood, no worries about being an executor. Just about the status of a "simple" beneficiary. Thanks! – Eilon Jan 11 '17 at 20:23

TLDR: There are no to few monetary downsides.

The process of settling an estate is called probate. Creditors can make claims against the estate, and assets should stand to pay any debts. If more debts are owed then assets, the beneficiaries are not held liable. Final expenses are usually the first amount paid out in full. So if the estate only contains enough assets to pay final expenses, then the creditors receive nothing. Usually creditors are paid pro-rated if there is not enough to cover debts.

For the record, the probate process is greatly simplified if one has a will. Get a will if you don't have one.

Life insurance is a bit different though. It passes directly to the beneficiaries and depending on the state could be untouchable by creditors.

The same thing could also happen with retirements accounts.

With 401K accounts, you could take some of it out, and pay tax on that. You could also roll it into your own account.

Property receives a really good benefit. While it does pass through probate the cost basis of real estate is reestablished at the time of death. So if grandpa bought a house for 30K in the 40's, and it is now worth 120K. You inherit a 120K piece of property and when you sell you use 120K as your cost basis not 30K.

Any estate taxes are typically paid by the state, not technically the heirs. If there is a 5% estate tax and they are to inherit 100K, they will only receive 95K. They will not receive 100K then be expected to be paid 5K. "Electrically" the same, but a large difference in responsibility.

The biggest downside is if you have a will fight on your hands. If someone disputes the validity of the will that can incur a lot of legal fees. For small estates, it may not be worth the fight.

The next is if any assets do go through probate. The process is lengthy and depending on the executor, they could reduce the size of the estate for charging for their time.

  • OTOH property that's in sufficiently bad shape can be something you should refuse to accept inheritance of. My local redevelopment agency's we-know-but-can't-do-anything-about-it section of their blighted property list is ~1/3rd to 1/2 full of properties in legal limbo because the late owners nominal heirs refused to accept ownership of a wreck that would cost more to make livable than it could be sold for, and if they spent money to demolish would instead be stuck with a permanent tax bill on a non-salable lot. – Dan is Fiddling by Firelight Jan 11 '17 at 0:45
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    There's a missing "e" in "Any estate taxes are typically paid by the state". StackExchange, in its finite wisdom, believes typos to be insignificant and won't let me edit ;-) – Steve Jessop Jan 11 '17 at 2:48

There is no inheritance tax on federal level there may be a tax at the state level. Inheritance taxes are different from estate taxes which effect the money that you would be inheriting before you receive it.

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    Thanks for the per-state info! I'm in WA state, so this seems quite relevant! – Eilon Jan 11 '17 at 2:42
  • Question: Is receiving stuff as a beneficiary legally the same as receiving an inheritance? (I'm not inheriting anything in the traditional sense of a parent/grandparent passing, but rather an unrelated friend.) – Eilon Jan 11 '17 at 2:43
  • Yes, it's the same no matter who leaves it to you. The exception would be a spouse or some other situation where you might already have ownership. – keshlam Jan 11 '17 at 2:55

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