There are so many reasons to make charitable gifts this year — whether it’s to support nonprofits that help people and communities with challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, or to provide assistance after disasters such as the Beirut explosion or an active hurricane season.
Even though a lot of people are struggling financially right now, many people whose finances have stabilized want to do whatever they can to help out. And they’re not waiting until the end of the year to make their gifts. “A lot of things are driving people to be generous, and our numbers prove it,” says Kim Laughton, president of Schwab Charitable, which runs Schwab’s donor-advised funds. From January through June 2020, its donors recommended over $1.7 billion in 330,000 grants, almost a 50% increase in the dollars granted and the number of grants compared to the same period in 2019. “There’s great need out there, and people are stepping up.”
“Philanthropy and giving is on everyone’s mind,” says Dien Yuen, who holds the Blunt-Nickel Professorship in Philanthropy at the American College of Financial Services. Some nonprofits need help now just to stay afloat. “The donors who are quite active are making gifts now and not waiting until later in the year, because the nonprofit might not be there later on.”
New tax laws and strategies can help you maximize tax breaks for yourself and the benefits for the charity. Here’s what you need to know:
— New $300 charitable deduction for non-itemizers.
— Bunching contributions and donor-advised funds.
— A double tax break from giving appreciated stock.
— Make a tax-free transfer from your IRA.
— Make an extra effort to research charities this year.
New $300 Charitable Deduction for Non-Itemizers
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, created several incentives for people to help charities right away, including a charitable deduction of up to $300 in 2020, even if you don’t itemize. Otherwise, you generally need to itemize to take the charitable deduction, which fewer people do since the standard deduction doubled a few years ago — now at $12,400 for single filers and $24,800 for married couples filing jointly in 2020.
“As a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, most taxpayers utilize the significantly higher standard deduction instead of itemizing deductions for mortgage interest, state taxes paid and charitable contributions,” says Mark Alaimo, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner in Lawrence, Massachusetts. “This special CARES Act provision now gives a tax incentive to all taxpayers to give at least $300 to charity during 2020.” To qualify, the gift must be made in cash and go directly to the charity, rather than to a donor-advised fund or private foundation.
“I think that the additional $300 provision in the CARES Act is really great, especially for the younger generation who may be just starting to work and may not be paying substantial mortgage interest,” says Kelsey Clair, tax strategist for Baird’s Private Wealth Management Group. “It allows them to give even in a small way and reap the tax benefit for it.”
The CARES Act also helps people who are in a financial position to make very large gifts. In 2020, you can deduct cash gifts of up to 100% of your adjusted gross income, rather than the usual 60% limit. To qualify for this higher limit, the gifts must go directly to the charities, rather than to a donor-advised fund or private foundation. This can help wealthy people reduce their taxable income significantly in 2020, and it may also help retirees who have money to give but bump up against the income limits for the deduction. “I see it in the older generation who have a lot of cash but don’t have a lot of income coming in and are trying to help out the community in any way they can,” says Clair.
Bunching Contributions and Donor-Advised Funds
Bunching contributions is a strategy that became popular after the standard deduction was increased. Instead of making smaller charitable contributions spread over several years, you can make larger contributions in one year so you can itemize your deductions (and claim the charitable deduction) that year, then take the standard deduction in the other years. “Rather than making a steady stream of charitable contributions from year to year, it may be beneficial instead to use a bunching strategy — give more and itemize in one year, and claim the standard deduction in other years,” says Clair.
Even though this can help you tax-wise, you might not want to give all of the money to the charities at one time and then neglect them over the next few years. But bunching can work well if you have a donor-advised fund. These funds are offered by brokerage firms, banks and community foundations, and you can take the charitable deduction in the year you give the money to the donor-advised fund, but then you have an unlimited amount of time to decide which charities to support. You can usually open a donor-advised fund with an initial contribution of $5,000 to $10,000 (it’s $5,000 at Schwab and Fidelity, $10,000 at T. Rowe Price, and $25,000 at Vanguard). You can make grants to charities of $50 or $100 up to thousands of dollars or more, and you can invest the money in a handful of mutual funds or investing pools until you make the grants. “It can be a great way to go ahead and make the contribution, without having to decide where that money goes right away,” says Clair.
Another benefit of the donor-advised fund is simplicity — you get one receipt for your tax records when you make the contribution and don’t have to wait for a variety of paperwork from each of the charities. “Donor-advised funds really help with the administrative side of things,” says Elliot Dole, a certified financial planner with Buckingham Strategic Wealth in St. Louis. “Itemizing charitable gifts is a hot button audit area. But with a donor-advised fund, it’s clear that you met the requirements.”
A Double Tax Break From Giving Appreciated Stock
Many people just write a check to the charity, but you may get a bigger tax benefit if you give appreciated stock. If you owned the stock for more than a year, you can deduct the value of the stock on the date you give it to the charity if you itemize. And even if you don’t itemize, you can avoid having to pay long-term capital gains taxes on your profits, which could have cost up to 20% if you sold the stock first. (Giving appreciated stock doesn’t qualify for the special $300 charitable deduction for non-itemizers for 2020; that only applies to cash.)
Most charities can accept appreciated stock, but the process can be easier if you have a donor-advised fund. “Given how volatile the stock market can be, many advisors recommend utilizing donor-advised funds due to the ease and speed that one can make a contribution,” says Alaimo. “This makes it easier to opportunistically gift highly appreciated securities, while regulating which charity receives how much of the donation, and when they receive it.”
It’s even easier if your brokerage account and donor-advised fund are with the same company. “When you log into your Schwab accounts, it shows your investment accounts, your bank accounts and your charitable account,” says Laughton. You can sort your investments by most highly appreciated or highly concentrated and see if you’re overweighted in one area. “We encourage people to rebalance their portfolios regularly, and when they see they’re overconcentrated, instead of selling those shares, they can just move them over to their charitable account,” says Laughton.
With so much stock market volatility this year, you may want to donate the stock when it reaches a target price, rather than giving at a certain time of year.
The donor-advised fund can also accept a variety of contributions — whether you write a check or you give appreciated stock, privately held stock, real estate, limited partnerships or even a horse farm. “It always makes sense for people who have highly appreciated non-cash assets to at least explore whether they could make good charitable gifts,” says Laughton. “Donor-advised funds can make that simple and easy.”
If you have investments that have lost value, however, it’s better to sell them first — and take a charitable loss — and then give the cash to charity. “I’ve seen multiple times where people made mistakes of donating stocks that were in a loss,” says Clair. “It’s better to sell that and claim the loss on your return and donate the cash.” When you sell the losing stock, you can use the loss to offset your capital gains and can use up to $3,000 in losses to reduce your ordinary income, which you couldn’t do if you gave the stock directly to the charity.
Make a Tax-Free Transfer From Your IRA
People who are age 70½ and older can give up to $100,000 per year tax-free from their IRA to charity, a procedure called a qualified charitable distribution or QCD. The gift counts as their required minimum distribution but isn’t included in their adjusted gross income. (Even though the SECURE Act, another recent tax law, increased the age to start taking RMDs from 70½ to 72, you can still make a qualified charitable distribution any time after you turn age 70½.)
This is usually a great strategy for people who have to take RMDs and would like to give money to charity — they can help the charity and not have to pay taxes on the money they have to withdraw from their IRA. But because of the CARES Act, people are not required to take RMDs in 2020. However, you may still be able to benefit from making a QCD this year. “Some people who have been doing the QCD have been supporting a couple of charities every year, and they’re not going to stop, especially during this time of need,” says Yuen. The tax-free transfer takes money out of your IRA, which can help reduce future RMDs. “It’s great planning,” she says.
To keep the money out of your AGI, it must be transferred directly from your IRA to the charity — you can’t withdraw it first. Ask your IRA administrator about the procedure, and let the charity know the money is coming. You have to give this money directly to a charity; it can’t go to a donor-advised fund.
[Read: A Guide to Your IRA]
Make an Extra Effort to Research Charities This Year
Scam artists have been out in full force to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s even more important now to check out charities before you give money, especially if they contact you first. You can look up charities at sites such as Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. Local community foundations are also a great resource for aid focused on your community — see the Community Foundation Locator for links. If you have a donor-advised fund, you may have access to additional research tools, such as GuideStar.
Schwab Charitable can help its donors vet the charities and also provides lists of selected charities that focus on timely issues, such as COVID-19 relief and social justice. “We’re trying to develop short lists to help people narrow the charities down to ones we know are valid and doing good work,” says Laughton.
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