First, the timing of your donation is critical. All charitable gifts must be made in the tax year for which you are filing the return. To claim a donated auto on your current tax return, you must have given the vehicle to a charity by Dec. 31 of the tax year for which it is claimed.
Be sure to check out the charity before dropping off your auto. Thousands of philanthropic groups accept gifts of vehicles. The important thing is to make sure that the one you select is a reputable and tax-qualified organization. Unfortunately, some con artists take advantage of people's good intentions and accept cars that never go to philanthropic causes.
Other groups may well do valuable community work, but they are not approved charitable organizations under IRS rules. Ask for copies of the group's federal tax-exempt status documents. You also can check out the IRS' website directory to see if the charity is on the approved list or peruse GuideStar's registry at GuideStar.org, which provides information on millions of U.S. nonprofit organizations. Finally, you can call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 and ask about the group's tax status.
Charitable gifts require itemization
Next, to write off your auto gift, you must itemize instead of claiming the standard deduction. That means you have to keep track of what you give and file the long Form 1040 and Schedule A on which you list itemized deductions.
If your old car is the only deduction you can claim on Schedule A, giving it to a charity may not be worth it from a tax standpoint. But if your itemized expenses are close to your standard deduction amount, adding the value of a donated car could be just what you need to make itemizing the right tax choice this year.
Also keep in mind that as a tax deduction, the value of your car does not directly cut your tax bill. Deductions are used to reduce your taxable income, which usually does mean you'll owe less taxes. But a deduction's actual worth depends on your tax bracket. That means a donation of a $300 auto translates to a tax cut of only $75 for a filer in the 25 percent tax range.
So if you would rather have the cash instead of a comparatively small tax break, sell your old auto. If, on the other hand, you're feeling generous -- or don't want to spend what it would take to get the clunker in sellable shape -- giving it to a charity might be the better route.