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Four Tax-Wise Ways To Donate Gifts To Charity

How can you donate to charity? Let us count the ways. Although there are many variations on these themes, there are four basic paths for making contributions to charitable organizations that let you take tax deductions while pursuing your philanthropic goals. They are:

1. Direct contributions: This is the easiest method. You simply write a check or make an online donation. If you're giving tangible property, such as artwork, you'll need to deliver it physically to the charitable group.

Most such contributions are fully deductible on your tax return, but there could be limitations on the size of your write-off based on your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year:

  • Contributions to public charities are limited to 50% of your AGI.
  • Contributions of appreciated property (for example, publicly traded stocks) to public charities can't exceed 30% of your AGI.
  • Contributions of appreciated property to private foundations are limited to 20% of your AGI.

But in all of these cases any amount that exceeds the limits can be claimed on the following year's return, and such "carryovers" may continue for up to five years.

2. Donor-advised funds: With a donor-advised fund, you give your money to a fund that's set up with an institutional partner. There might be a minimum contribution amount, and the fund may charge fees to cover its costs. But one big advantage of this approach is that you can make a donation to the fund and get an immediate tax deduction and then decide later where you want your money to go.

Once you choose to give a specified amount to a particular charity, the fund will verify that the organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. Once your grant is approved, the money goes to the group with an indication that it was made on your recommendation. You also can request that your gift be made anonymously.

3. Charitable gift annuities: This approach is somewhat more sophisticated than direct gifts and donor-advised funds. A charitable gift annuity is a contract between a donor and a charity. You agree to transfer money, securities, or other assets to the organization, which in turn agrees to make specified payments to "annuitants"—usually you or you and someone else you designate.

What are the tax consequences? As the donor, you're entitled to a charitable deduction in the year you make your donation to the charity that is adjusted to account for the expected payments you'll receive, based on your life expectancy and other factors.

4. Charitable trusts: There are two main types to consider: the charitable remainder trust (CRT) and the charitable lead trust (CLT).

With a CRT, you set up the trust and transfer selected assets to it. The charity often acts as the trustee and manages the assets. During the trust term, you (or another beneficiary or beneficiaries you specify) receive regular payments from the trust. The CRT may last for a term of specified years or your lifetime. Finally, when the trust ends, the remaining assets from your contribution (the remainder) go to the charity. You get a current tax deduction based on the projected value of that remainder.

A CLT works the opposite way. You still transfer assets to the trust, but annual payments go to the specified charity, and the remainder at the end of the trust term goes to the beneficiaries you designated.

Regardless of whether you use a CRT or a CLT, the annual payments may be based on a fixed amount or a percentage of assets. Other special rules apply, so be sure to obtain expert guidance.

This is a brief overview of current rules. But these approaches could be affected by proposed tax changes. We'll keep you up to date on any changes.


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This article was written by a professional financial journalist for The Dover Group and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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