Selling Inherited Shares

Years ago, I inherited some stock shares, but now I can't find the records. How do I go about selling?

In all likelihood, the sale will be neither difficult nor overly taxing. In fact, if the shares were transferred to you during probate (as is usually the case), selling them may be easier than if you had bought the stock yourself, says estate-planning attorney Ronald Aucutt of Richmond, Va.-based law firm McGuireWoods. If the shares weren't transferred to you — which can happen when estates are small and there are few heirs — then you may indeed have a bit of legwork ahead of you. Here's what you need to know in either scenario.

Let's start with the most likely (and simplest) scenario: The shares were transferred into your name, but you no longer have the paperwork documenting this. All you need to do is contact the brokerage house that currently holds the shares and explain your intentions. The good news is, inherited shares are subject to favorable tax rules. That's because the cost basis is "stepped up" to the shares' market value on the date the original owner died. So rather than being subject to tax on the entire spread from when the original owner purchased the shares to the day you choose to sell, you'll instead be taxed only on the difference between the stock's value on the day the original account owner died and the stock's current market value.

Also, your holding period is automatically deemed to be longer than one year, which means you'll be taxed at no more than the 20% maximum capital-gains rate, says certified public accountant Larry Foster of the New York-based accounting and tax-planning firm Eisner LLP.

What if the shares were never transferred to you? Start by contacting the executor of the will, which is usually a close relative or a business associate, says Aucutt. Ask for a copy of the will (or if there was no will, a copy of the court papers) and the benefactor's death certificate, says Foster. Then contact the brokerage house holding the shares, and ask that the shares be transferred to your name.

If your benefactor had no broker and kept the stock certificates himself (say, in a safety deposit box or even somewhere at home), the transfer agent — typically a commercial bank that maintains a company's records of stock and bond ownership — should be able to transfer the shares to you, says Steve Milner, a CPA and managing partner at the Newport Beach, Calif.-based accounting and financial advisory firm Squar Milner. (The transfer agent is usually listed on a company's Web site as well as in its prospectus.) To expedite matters, have your benefactor's social-security number in hand, Milner suggests.

For more on how your sale could be taxed, see our story, "Taxes on Investments Received as an Inheritance."