Tax Deductions for Charitable Contributions

You can deduct charitable contributions from your taxable income--if you follow IRS rules about documenting your gifts.

When you make a charitable contribution, you benefit both the charity and your own tax situation, because you can deduct the amount of these gifts from your taxable income if you itemize your deductions. However, the IRS has lots of rules about how you must report and document all your charitable deductions. If you don’t follow the rules, you won’t get the deduction.

Cash Contributions

Claiming a charitable deduction is simple when you write a check to a charity or make an online donation with your credit card.

For a cash gift of any amount, you need a receipt (showing the date and amount of your donation) OR a bank or credit card statement, payroll deduction record, cancelled check, or other bank record showing the transaction. Email communications are generally acceptable. If you donate through a text message, the IRS will accept the phone bill as verification if it shows the recipient organization, the amount, and the date given.

If you want to claim a deduction for a cash gift of $250 or more, you must have a written receipt, describing the gift, from the charity. To determine whether or not this requirement applies to you, you do not have to add up all your donations to a particular charity. For example, if you give the local food bank $50 every month, each contribution is separate, and the receipt rule does not apply.

The receipt should also state whether or not the charity gave you any goods or services in exchange for your gift; if so, the receipt must describe them and give an estimate of their value. The charity doesn’t have to report a low-cost item it gives to you as a token of thanks—for example, a plastic water bottle or coffee mug with the charity’s name on it.

You must get the receipt by the time you file your tax return.

Noncash Contributions

Making “noncash contributions”—in other words, donating clothing, books, cars, or other items—requires more documentation and sometimes a special IRS form. It all depends on the value of your gifts.

To figure out the value of your gifts, add all the value of all similar items. For example, if you give away a hundred valuable old books, add their value together even though you might think you’re really making a lot of small gifts. The rule applies even if you give the items to different charities.

Gifts of Less Than $250

To deduct a noncash donation worth less than $250, you need a receipt with:

  • the charitable organization’s name
  • the date and location of the contribution, and
  • a description of the property (in just enough detail to identify the items).

If you’re giving securities, you should also document the name of the issues, the type of security, and whether or not it is publicly traded.

Clothing and Household Items. Most of us, from time to time, pass on clothing, furniture, appliances, and similar household items to charities, hoping others can use them. A tax deduction isn’t the main goal, but you can claim a deduction for these items, just like more valuable ones. The items must, however, be in good condition; you don’t get a deduction for giving a charity items that really should be thrown out. You can get values for commonly donated items from various commercial software programs or at the Salvation Army’s online Valuation Guide.

Gifts of More Than $250

If you want to claim a deduction for a gift worth $250 or more, get a written receipt from the charity that describes the gift. The receipt should state whether or not any goods or services were given to you in exchange for your gift; if they were, the receipt must describe them and give an estimate of their value. The charity doesn’t have to report a low-cost item it gives to you as a token of thanks—for example, a plastic water bottle or coffee mug with the charity’s name on it.

Gifts of More Than $500

If you make a total of more than $500 worth of noncash gifts in a calendar year, you must file Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, with your income tax return.

You have to fill out only Section A of the form if:

  • the gifts are worth less than $5,000, or
  • you’re giving publicly traded securities (even if they’re worth more than $5,000).

Gifts of More Than $5,000

If you give away property worth more than $5,000 ($10,000 for stock in a closely held business), you’ll probably need to get an appraisal. (The information goes in Section B of Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, which must be signed by the person who appraises your gift and the charity as well as by you.) An appraisal is required whether you donate one big item or several “similar items” that have a total value of more than $5,000. For example, if you give away a hundred valuable old books, and their total value is more than $5,000, you’ll need an appraisal even though you might think you’re really making a lot of small gifts. The rule applies even if you give the items to different charities.

Your appraisal must be from someone the IRS considers a “qualified appraiser.” If you don’t, you won’t be able to claim the deduction. The appraiser must sign Form 8382.

A qualified appraiser is someone who:

  • has earned an appraisal designation from a recognized professional appraiser organization OR has met certain minimum education and experience requirements (these are set out by the IRS in regulations)
  • regularly performs appraisals for pay, and
  • demonstrates verifiable education and experience in valuing the type of property being appraised. This requirement can be met if the appraiser signs a declaration stating that his or her background, experience, education, and membership in professional associations makes him or her qualified.

The appraiser you hire must be independent and impartial, so don’t hire anyone who is related to you or regularly works for you or the charity. Someone who is a party to the transaction in which you acquired the property being appraised can’t do the appraisal, unless you donate the property within two months of acquiring it, and its appraised value does not exceed the acquisition price.

Generally, the appraisal fee can’t be based on a percentage of the property’s appraised value. And you can’t take the fee you pay the appraiser as a charitable deduction. The fee could count as a “miscellaneous” deduction, but only if the value of all your miscellaneous deductions is greater than two percent of your adjusted gross income.

Special rule for gifts of art. If you donate works of art that have a total value of $20,000 or more, you must include a copy of the signed appraisal when you file your tax return. If any one piece of art is worth $20,000 or more, the IRS may ask you for an 8 × 10 color photo of it.

Special Rules for Donating Vehicles

Many charities actively solicit the donation of used cars and other vehicles. To claim a deduction of $500 or more for a vehicle you donate, you of course need a written receipt from the charity, issued at the time you make the gift or shortly thereafter.

How large a donation you can claim depends on what the charity does with the vehicle. If it promptly sells the car without using it or substantially fixing it up, you can deduct the amount the charity receives for the car or its fair market value when you donated it, whichever is less. If the charity does use or improve the car (or gives it away as part of its charitable activities), you can deduct the fair market value at the time of the contribution. The charity typically provides this information on IRS Form 1098-C, Contributions of Motor Vehicles, Boats and Airplanes.

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