What Could You Do With a Death Benefit & How Is It Taxed?

Multigenerational family walking on the beach and discussing death benefit taxes

Key Takeaways

  • Death benefits can be used to pay off mortgages, other debts, establish college funds, set up income streams, or invest for the future.
  • Taxes on death benefits vary depending on the source of the money, with life insurance proceeds typically being tax-free.
  • Investments like stocks and real estate receive a "step-up" in basis, potentially reducing the tax burden for beneficiaries.
  • Inherited retirement accounts have different tax treatments based on the type of account and the relationship with the deceased.
  • Annuities are taxed as regular income, with interest earned on the initial amount deposited being subject to income tax.

A death benefit is a payment to a beneficiary. The money could come from different types of investments such as stocks, bonds and real estate, or from annuities, life insurance or retirement accounts (e.g., and individual retirement account (IRA), Roth IRA, 401(k), etc.).

If you're a beneficiary, you'll likely have some important decisions to make, regardless of where the money comes from. Everyone's circumstances and financial needs are different, so there is no one right way to use this money. To help guide you, here are some common uses for a death benefit, plus some of the limitations you might want to know if you receive one.

How Could a Death Benefit Be Used?

There are numerous ways to use a death benefit, but here are a handful of ideas to consider:

  1. Pay off a mortgage: A home can be a large asset and a large financial responsibility. If a loved one dies and leaves behind a mortgage to pay, you could use a death benefit to pay off all of, or a portion of, the mortgage. This could help your family remain in the home or limit the debt that's owed before you sell the property.
  2. Pay off other existing debt: In conjunction with a mortgage, other household debt may exist and could be a priority. Using a death benefit to help pay off debt may be the best option for you.
  3. Set up a college fund: After necessary expenses are covered, establishing a college fund for your child (or children) might also be a priority. A death benefit can help fund a 529 college savings plan for you, your child or another family member.
  4. Set up an income stream: If you depended on your deceased loved one's income, a death benefit may be used to set up a stream of income through an annuity. This could be a helpful option if family members relied on the deceased person's income to pay for household expenses, such as a mortgage, car loans or credit card debt.
  5. Invest in your future: Contributing to an investment account today could help with your future financial security. There are a number of ways to invest the death benefit you receive, and a financial representative may be able to help you determine what's best for you.

Taxes on Death Benefits

Every death benefit has its own limitations, such as taxes and creditor protection. Depending on where the money comes from, the restrictions of the death benefit may vary. For instance, death benefits from a life insurance policy are typically paid as a single tax-free lump sum. You will, however, need to report any interest earned on the proceeds. 

Update the beneficiary form regularly as the proceeds will be paid to the named individuals.

Here are some of the most common types of death benefits and how they're taxed.

Stocks, Bonds & Real Estate

Stocks, bonds, real estate and many other types of investments typically receive a "step-up" in basis. A step-up in basis means that the investment receives the market value once the owner passes away. For example, if you paid $5 for a stock that increased in value to $100 over a 30-year period, you would normally have to pay capital gains tax on $95 (the difference between the purchase and the sale price). But if you held the stock until death, your beneficiaries would receive its current value at that time — $100 in this example — and would not be taxed on the gain that occurred while you were alive. If your beneficiaries were to sell the stock, they would likely be taxed based on the gain or loss on the $100 value.

Retirement Accounts

The type of retirement account and who you're inheriting it from will determine its tax treatment. For instance, if you inherited an IRA from a spouse, you could roll the funds into an existing IRA and be subject to the normal IRA tax rules. This includes paying income tax on any distributions and paying a 10% early withdrawal fee if you take distributions before age 59 1/2. This is just one example, though, and due to the complexities around the tax treatment of inherited retirement accounts, you'll likely want to talk to a financial professional to better understand your options and tax obligations.


Annuities are taxed differently from investments. In general, the interest earned, which is the difference between the initial amount deposited and the value at death, is taxable at the regular income tax rates and receives no preferential treatment.

The Bottom Line

When receiving a death benefit, there are a lot of options when it comes to how you could spend the money. Before you make a plan, keep in mind that different types of investments and retirement accounts follow different tax guidelines for death benefits. If you still have lingering questions, a financial representative or a tax advisor may be able to help you find answers.

Live More & Worry Less

Live More & Worry Less

We have financial professionals ready to assist you on your life insurance journey.
By submitting your information, you agree that Western & Southern Life may contact you at the number provided, possibly using automated technology or a prerecorded voice, to market products and services. You understand submitting your information is not required to make a purchase. Data rates may apply. You may revoke this consent by contacting 877-367-9734. You have read, and agree to, the Privacy Policy.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Related Life Insurance Articles


Information provided is general and educational in nature, and all products or services discussed may not be provided by Western & Southern Financial Group or its member companies (“the Company”). The information is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. The Company does not provide legal or tax advice. Laws of a specific state or laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. The Company makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by its use. The Company disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or reliance on, the information. Consult an attorney or tax advisor regarding your specific legal or tax situation.