By Eva Rosenberg
Although news coverage of Japan’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami is easing, the devastation is not. Thousands are dead. Millions are homeless. Businesses are closed. Jobs are lost – permanently or temporarily.
Others also need assistance because of uprisings in Africa and the Middle East – in Libya, Sudan, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria Tunisia and ever more places.
Fortunately, Americans want to help, but scammers and confidence tricksters are widespread. The rip-off experts know how to tug on your heartstrings – ignore them. Avoid appeals that come via email or telephone, unless you know the source well. And make certain the email or call really is coming from that source.
How should you direct your generosity in order to help others, as well as yourself – and to ensure your donations are deductible? First, keep records. A cancelled check is not enough. Get receipts for your donations. Even when paying online, get receipts, if only via email. Ideally, those receipts should specify that you didn’t get anything for your donation. If you did get something – like a meal, book, video, or goodie bag – the receipt should show the value of the things you received. Avoid making cash donations – even when your donations are to your church, temple or mosque. They all accept checks.
People have been writing to TaxMama asking if they could send donations directly to charities in their native countries, or in the countries where there is need for help. Unfortunately, those payments will not qualify for a donation.
Look for charities that are based in the United States – with U.S. 501(c)(3) designations. The IRS has a list of charities online. It even tells you which organizations have been suspended or had their non-profit status revoked recently.
The best way to make donations is to send money, or forms of money. Don’t donate ‘things’ to Japan or overseas. It’s very costly for charities to collect, screen, organize and ship used goods and merchandise. It’s much easier to use money to buy essentials closer to the disaster areas and to ship a shorter distance.
Almost Money Donations
Credit card mileage or bonus points. American Express is making it possible to donate your Membership Rewards ® points to Japanese charities through JustGive.org. The Discover Card invites you to donate your Cashback Bonus. Other cards have this option, as well.
Many merchants are offering deals where part of your purchase price goes to charity. Your routine shopping can also produce donations via OneCause.com. Do you get the deduction for those donations? No – the merchant will. But if you were going to make that purchase anyway, someone will be getting that help.
Some stores have point of sale boxes, where they are collecting your coins and cash to donate to charity. Will you get the write-off for those donations? Probably not. You won’t have any way to prove you made those contributions, will you? Perhaps you could photograph the contribution box with the information about the organization clearly showing, then print it out. As long as you can prove you made the donation, you only need a receipt for donations of $250 or more to any organization.
When you do donate $250 or more, be sure to get a written receipt from the organization. Otherwise, the IRS will disallow your contribution. Sadly enough, even if you can later prove your donation, even the Tax Court has been known to disallow donations without timely receipts.
Readers, what cause are you donating money to – and how?
Eva Rosenberg, EA, is the publisher of TaxMama.com, where your tax questions are answered. Eva is the author of several books and e-books, including the newest edition of “Small Business Taxes Made Easy,” now available at your favorite bookseller. Eva teaches a tax-pro course at IRSExams.com.