After retirement (and even before), many people are looking for meaningful ways to spend some of their newly free time and to make a difference in the world. Volunteer work is often the solution. Whether you use expertise developed during your paid career or throw yourself into something new, volunteer work allows you to help worthy causes, pursue your interests, and meet new people. And if you itemize deductions, the IRS is willing to give you a little help, in the form of tax deductions for some of your volunteer expenses.
Of course, volunteer work isn't the only way to help others. If you are fortunate enough to have cash or property to donate, your charitable giving can fund worthwhile endeavors. Whether you give money, property, or your time, this article explains some basic rules about claiming tax deductions for your good work.
No matter what or how much you decide to donate, your gift will be deductible only if you make it to a qualified organization. This means the group must meet the IRS's requirements for receiving tax-deductible donations.
Most public charities are qualified organizations, as are many nonprofit private foundations. If you are uncertain whether an organization qualifies to receive deductible donations, you should ask the organization for a copy of the IRS letter approving the organization's tax-exempt status.
If you are unable to verify tax-exempt status with the organization itself, you can check IRS Publication 78, a list of organizations qualified to receive tax-deductible donations; you can find it at the IRS website, www.irs.gov.
If you donate money to a qualified organization and receive nothing in exchange, your donation will be fully deductible (as long as your contribution isn't too large relative to your income). However, you may not deduct a cash donation unless you have a tangible record of the donation, no matter how small the amount. You might know that you put $5 in the church basket every week, but without a receipt, that donation is not deductible.
To claim a cash donation, you will need one of the following:
If you donate $250 or more, you must obtain a written acknowledgement from the charity. The acknowledgment must state the amount of your donation and whether or not you received goods or services in exchange for the donation.
If you receive something in return for your cash donation, such as services, items of property, or even benefits (if they are financial in nature), then you must reduce your deduction by the market value of the items or benefits you received. For example, if you pay $200 for tickets to a charity dinner, but the dinner itself was worth $50, you may deduct only $150 as a charitable contribution.
You may donate almost any type of property, whether used or new (although certain types of property must be in good condition, so you can skip the running shoes with holes in the soles). Property contributions run the gamut from used clothing and cars to investment securities, real estate, artwork, and other collectibles.
When you donate property, you may typically deduct its fair market value on the date you donate it. For example, let's say that the day after you retired, you boxed up all of your suits and other professional clothing and took them to your local Goodwill store. You may not deduct the full price you originally paid for the clothing; instead, you may deduct only its value used, on the day you donate it. You can figure out this value by looking at comparable items in thrift stores or consignment shops.
Sometimes, you may not deduct the fair market value of property, but instead may deduct only your tax basis in the item. "Basis" is a tax term that takes into account what you paid for the property, what you've spent to improve it over the years, and any tax benefits (such as depreciation) you've already claimed for it.
Stricter rules also apply to more valuable property. For example, you may have to submit additional forms to the IRS or have the property appraised to determine its value. You can find more information in IRS Publication 561, Determining the Value of Donated Property.
People who volunteer their time and expertise believe they have something valuable to offer. So, you might find it distressing that your services, expert though they might be, are worth a tax deduction of precisely zero. This rule is not unique to volunteer work; in fact, it's consistent with other tax laws. With only rare exceptions, the general rule is that you must spend cold, hard cash or give away stuff before you may claim a deduction.
However, you may deduct many of the expenses you incur for volunteer work, including:
Some local travel expenses are also deductible, such as bus, train, or taxi fares:
Again, all of these deductions assume that you itemize deductions on your tax return. Ever since tax legislation that passed a few years ago, the standard deduction has been more advantageous for most taxpayers.