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.
If you want to claim itemized deductions for noncash charitable donations on your 2010 Form 1040, gird your loins. Thanks to herds of unscrupulous taxpayers who once made a habit of claiming bogus and inflated charitable write-offs, the Feds have tightened the screws over the years (justifiably so).
Unfortunately, innocent folks (like you) get squeezed as a result. Here’s a quick summary of the seven rules that apply to the most-common types of noncash charitable donations.
For a donation of a noncash item worth less than $250, you need a receipt from the charity–like the familiar slip you get for noncash donations to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. You need to have the receipt in hand by the time you file your return. Keep it with your tax records, but don’t file it with your return.
For a noncash item worth $250-$5,000, you need a written acknowledgment from the charity (more detailed than a receipt) that meets IRS guidelines. Once again, you need to have this in hand when you file your return. Charities know about this rule, and you should have no problem collecting a suitable acknowledgment. Keep it with your tax records, but don’t file it with your return.
In the most recent Tax Report column on the new $5 million gift-tax exemption, there wasn’t space to discuss a different, but related break that’s among the most useful in entire U.S. tax code: the annual $13,000 gift exclusion.
Here’s how it works:
Unlike the $5 million exemption, which applies to total gifts made during a person’s life, every taxpayer can take advantage of the $13,000 exclusion, every year. A taxpayer may make as many gifts as he or she desires as long as no one person gets more than $13,000 of value in any one year.
Married couples may therefore give $26,000 to each recipient; if they make a special election, the entire $26,000 can come from one partner’s property. The annual exclusion doesn’t count against the $5 million lifetime exemption, and there is no deduction for a gift. Although many states have estate or inheritance taxes, only two have gift taxes: Connecticut and Tennessee.
The recipient may be anyone—not just a relative—and the gift may be either cash or a non-cash item such stock or other property. It may even be possible to give a $13,000 “interest” in a piece of real estate or an item that can’t be divided, such as a painting. Such moves are complex and require expert help, however, says estate attorney Ronald Aucutt of McGuireWoods. Gifts don’t have to be made outright to a recipient either; they may be made to a trust instead.
Gifts must also be “completed.”
Now is the time, tax-wise, to give a lot of money away.
New tax rules in 2011 should make it a top priority for the wealthy to consider whether to make a gift, and when. The rules let someone give away a lot more money free of gift tax than ever before.
When Congress extended the Bush tax cuts late last year, the deal also included a big rise in the amount a person can give away tax-free over his or her lifetime. Since 2001, total gifts over $1 million had resulted in a tax. The new ceiling is $5 million. The new rules last only through 2012. What happens after that is a mystery, so many wealthy taxpayers want to make sure they give away $5 million–plus all growth and appreciation on that gift–while the giving is good. For married couples, there is $10 million at stake.
The issue of how best to help clients take advantage of the new gift-tax rules is “the hottest one out there, by far” for tax advisers, according to Robert Keebler, a certified public accountant in Green Bay, Wisc.
The very wealthy who can afford to part with $5 million — or $10 million for couples — should definitely go ahead and do so in the next two years, according to several advisers. This timeline for gift giving also makes sense for those who are affluent but not extremely rich. Where a person resides should be factored into this decision, of course, because cost of living varies.
t’s official: Many taxpayers who were hoping to make charitable IRA donations for 2010 will not be able to do so.
The Internal Revenue Service has issued a statement saying that the law doesn’t allow taxpayers to return payouts taken last year in order to make direct charitable Individual Retirement Account donations for 2010.
The questions arose after lawmakers tucked a provision into the giant December tax package that retroactively extended the IRA charitable donation. This highly popular rule, which had expired at the beginning of 2010, allows taxpayers who are 70 l/2 or older to donate up to $100,000 per year of IRA assets directly to a charity. There’s no deduction for the gift, but it doesn’t count as income and it can satisfy the Required Minimum Distribution, or RMD, as I reported last month.
Lawmakers, recognizing that their own delays had caused problems, gave taxpayers until Jan. 31 of this year to make 2010 donations.
But the law did not address the predicament of those who wanted to make IRA donations last year but took required payouts instead, often at the last minute, because they were afraid Congress wouldn’t extend the law.
There are less than five days left in 2010 – five days to take your stock market losses, donate to charity, and otherwise manipulate your 2010 tax bill. Now that the tax brackets and capital gains tax rates are staying the same, much of the typical year-end tax advice still applies. But there are some strategies that taxpayers may overlook, and others that may be more appealing this year than in the past. Here, from around the web, a roundup of some of the best moves you can make – for the next five days, at least:
Defer income. This is an age-old strategy, but this year, we mean it: In 2011, taxpayers will be subject to a lower payroll tax. With the Social Security tax rate dropping to 4.2% from 6.2% for wages earned in 2011, taxpayers have an extra incentive to push income into the New Year. Self-employed workers can ask clients and customers to pay their bills after January 1, and employees may be able to ask their employers to wait before awarding bonuses or stock options.
For the last few years, you’ve been allowed to make donations to IRS-approved charities directly out of your IRA if you were age 70½ or older at yearend. The annual limitation on these qualified charitable distributions, or QCDs, is a whopping $100,000. If your spouse has IRAs in his or her own name and is 70½ or older, he or she can also arrange for QCDs up to the $100,000 annual limit. Of course, smaller donations are allowed too (as small as you like).
The tax advantage is this: QCDs are federal-income-tax-free and they count as IRA required minimum distributions (RMDs). Since RMDs are taxable except when taken in the form of QCDs, you can substitute tax-free QCDs for taxable required distributions and thereby reduce your tax bill. In effect, this strategy allows you to deduct QCDs without any of the tax-law restrictions that apply to garden-variety charitable donations. (You don’t get to claim an actual charitable deduction, of course, because that would result in a double tax benefit.)
The QCD break expired at the end of 2009, but the new tax cut extension legislation retroactively restored it for 2010 and extended it through 2011, something discussed in today’s Tax Guy column.
The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (SmartMoney.com), retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at email@example.com.