Taxpayers must generally provide documentation to support (or to “substantiate”) a claim for any contributions made to charity that they are planning to deduct from their income. Assuming that the contribution was made to a qualified organization, that the taxpayer has received either no benefit from the contribution or a benefit that was less than the value of the contribution, and that the taxpayer otherwise met the requirements for a qualified contribution, then taxpayers should worry next whether they have the proper records to prove their claim.
The taxpayer must provide records to prove a donation of any amount of cash (including payments by cash, check, electronic funds transfer or debit, and credit card). Acceptable records for cash donations of less than $250 generally include:
- An account statement or canceled check;
- A written letter, e-mail or other properly issued receipt from the qualified organization bearing the name of the organization and the date and amount of the contribution; and/or
- A pay stub, Form W–2, or other payroll document showing the amount of a contribution made from payroll.
Caution: A taxpayer cannot substantiate deductions through written records it has prepared on its own behalf, such as a checkbook or personal notes.
Cash donations of more than $250. If a taxpayer donated $250 or more in cash at any one time, the taxpayer must provide a contemporaneous written acknowledgment of the donation from the qualified organization. For each donation of $250 or more, the taxpayer must obtain a separate written acknowledgment. Furthermore, this written acknowledgement must:
- State the amount of the contribution; and
- State whether the qualified organization provided the taxpayer with any goods or services in exchange for the donation, and if so estimate their value; and
- Be received by the taxpayer before the earlier of (1) the return’s filing date or (2) the due date of the return, plus any extensions.
Note: The written acknowledgment ideally would also show the date of the contribution. If it does not, the taxpayer must also provide a bank record that indicates the date.
The acknowledgment must contain a statement of whether or not a taxpayer received any goods or services as a result of the donation, even if no goods or services were received. Even if the donation was for tithes to a religious organization, such as a church, synagogue, or mosque, the acknowledgment should state that the only goods and services received were of intangible religious value. The Tax Court has upheld the disallowance of charitable contribution deductions where the written acknowledgment omitted such a statement regarding goods or services provided.
As with cash contributions, the requirements for substantiating noncash contributions increase with the value of the contribution. For example, to substantiate noncash contributions of less than $250, taxpayers must show a receipt or other written communication from the charitable organizations.
To substantiate a noncash contribution between $250 and $500, the taxpayer must obtain a written acknowledgment of the contribution from the qualified organization prior to the earlier of the filing date or due date of its return. The acknowledgment must also describe the type and value of the goods and services, if any, provided to the taxpayer as a result of the donation.
To substantiate noncash contributions totaling between $500 and $5,000 or donations of publically traded securities, a taxpayer must complete Section A of Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions. To substantiate noncash contributions of $5,000 or more (for example, donations of art, jewelry, vehicles, qualified conservation contributions, or intellectual property) the taxpayer must complete Section B of Form 8283. Generally, this would also require the taxpayer to obtain a qualified appraisal of the property’s fair market value.
A word about valuation. A charity is not obligated to provide a value to any noncash contribution; its written receipt only needs to describe the item(s) and note the date of the contribution. The taxpayer, however, is not relieved from making a good-faith estimate of value, which of course the IRS may dispute on any audit. “Thrift-shop” value is often used to value donations of clothing and household goods.
Caution: Last year the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued a report finding that the IRS was not accurately monitoring the reporting of noncash contributions requiring completion of Form 8283. The IRS responded that it agreed that it needed to initiate more correspondence audits with taxpayers claiming noncash contributions without the necessary Form 8283 and appraisal.
Vehicles. A taxpayer who donates a motor vehicle, boat, or airplane to charity must deduct either the gross proceeds from the qualified organization’s sale of the vehicle or, if the vehicle is used within the charity’s mission, the fair market value of the vehicle on the date of the contribution, whichever is smaller. The taxpayer must also obtain and attach Form 1098-C, Contributions of Motor Vehicles, Boats, and Airplanes, to its return in addition to Form 8283.