Here’s how to get a tax deduction for charitable giving

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The IRS allows you to take a tax deduction for your charitable contributions, and this can lower your taxable income as well as your tax bill. However, to get the full benefit, your donations and other itemized tax deductions would have to exceed the standard deduction amount for your filing status.

How much you can deduct

Generally, you can make cash contributions to public charities and certain foundations, as long as the amount doesn’t exceed 60 percent of your adjusted gross income, or AGI. This reflects a bump-up from the 50 percent limit in force prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, or TCJA. The increase was made in part to appease those who feared the law’s new outsized standard deduction would discourage people from making charitable contributions.

Steve Parrish, co-director of the Center for Retirement Income at The American College of Financial Services, points out that the TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction amount and limited the state and local tax deduction, resulting in fewer people who itemize deductions. “If you don’t itemize, you won’t be able to deduct your charitable giving,” he says.

Standard deduction amounts

2019 tax year 2020 tax year
Individuals $12,200 $12,400
Married couples filing jointly $24,400 $24,800
Heads of households $18,350 $18,650

The 60 percent limit applies to most cash contributions regardless of your adjusted gross income, but lower limits apply to other types of contributions. For example, non-cash contributions such as clothing and appliances are limited to 50 percent of AGI. Capital gain property donated at fair market value can’t exceed 30 percent of AGI, and the same is generally true of donations to a private foundation. Other types of donations max out at 20 percent of AGI. Contribution amounts in excess of these limits can be carried forward on future tax returns for up to five years.

How to claim the deduction

Most people don’t donate more than 20 percent of their adjusted gross income. But if all your tax deductions add up to more than your standard deduction amount, it pays to itemize.

“You have to exceed the standard deduction or it’s moot,” says Parrish.

Itemizing deductions involves filling out Schedule A, with charitable deductions accounted for in the section on Gifts to Charity, lines 11 through 14. The number on line 17 of Schedule A then transfers onto line 9 of Form 1040.

Other allowable deductions include medical and dental expenses, state and local taxes, real estate and personal property taxes, home mortgage interest and points, mortgage insurance premiums, investment interest and casualty and theft losses from a federally declared disaster.

If these and other allowable deductions add up to more than the standard deduction amount, take advantage of them.

Rules for claiming the deduction

Must be a qualifying organization

Charitable donations must be made to tax-exempt, 501(c)3 organizations to qualify as a deduction.

A legitimate charitable organization would be happy to provide proof of its tax-exempt status, such as by producing its Form 990. But be careful not to be taken in by scammers.

“You might get a call from someone who says, ‘We started this for the benefit of earthquake victims,'” says Parrish. “Ask for proof of its application for tax-exempt status. That’s an easy way to make sure grifters aren’t coming in and telling you ‘it’s a great charity.'”

The IRS also provides a tool, Tax Exempt Organization Search, where you can confirm the status of a tax-exempt organization. Other online databases to check include GuideStar and Charity Navigator.

The IRS considers the following types of organizations fair game for tax-deductible donations:

  • Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other religious organizations.
  • Federal, state and local governments for contributions meant for the public good.
  • Nonprofit schools and hospitals.
  • Such organizations as the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Goodwill, United Way, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.
  • War veterans’ groups.

For a complete list of qualified organizations, check out IRS Publication 526.

You need to document your contributions

The IRS requires you to keep records of cash contributions (your bank statement will do) and payroll deductions. If you donate $250 or more, the charity generally sends a written acknowledgement of the amount you contributed at some point before you file your return. Be sure to ask for it if you don’t receive one.

If you donate non-cash contributions of less than $500, you must get and keep receipts from the organization substantiating your donation. Oftentimes charities such as Goodwill Industries will provide a form inscribed with its name and address on which you can list the items donated and the date it was contributed. The IRS does require that the items you donate are in good condition; this rule is an attempt to prevent donors from giving away worthless items and exaggerating their value to inflate the deduction amount on their tax returns. The Salvation Army provides valuation guidelines on its website.

Non-cash contributions that exceed $500 require you to fill out and attach Form 8283 to your return. Any property valued in excess of $5,000 must be appraised by a qualified organization. Parrish says oftentimes the recipient organization will furnish an appraisal. “If you’re going to give art to a museum, the museum may help you get a qualified appraisal for your art,” he says.

Keep a copy of all your receipts in case the IRS comes calling.

Expenses from volunteer efforts count

While you won’t get a deduction for the value of your time or services when volunteering, any purchases made to benefit an organization can be deducted if they’re not reimbursed. Keep a record of the items you purchase on its behalf as well as receipts of your expenses.

Likewise, actual costs for gas and oil can be deducted for activities such as travel to charitable events or to a donation site. Or you can take the standard mileage deduction, which has been stuck at 14 cents per mile for many years.

Strategies for taking the charitable deduction

Bunch your deductions

It may not be possible to donate enough each year to take advantage of the charitable deduction, so one strategy would be to focus your generosity in alternate years by “bunching deductions.”

Parrish gave away a recreational vehicle last year, and the organization receiving it sold it and sent him a qualified appraisal for his records.

“We put through a lot of our deductions in the past year so that we will itemize our taxes and get the value of our deductions,” says Parrish. “And we may be cutting back this year and increasing deductions the following year. Bunching your deductions in one tax year makes a lot of sense.”

Give money to Donor Advised Funds

If you put money in a donor advised fund by December 31, you can take an immediate deduction and decide later to which organization you wish to direct the proceeds.

“You have the luxury of thinking about it,” says Parrish.

This also gives you the opportunity to augment your donations in a particular tax year for tax-deduction purposes.

Note that there are some occasions when a charity will refuse a donation if it’s not in its best interests to accept it. For example, if there are still tanks underground where a former gas station once stood, the empty lot isn’t going to be worth much to a charity.

“Charities can and often do turn down donations,” says Parrish.