November 19, 2012
Ronald Finkelstein, Tax & Business Services Partner, Featured in Reuters Article "How to Make the Most of Charitable Tax Breaks"
By Amy Feldman
When megastorm Sandy devastated parts of the Northeast, people raced to help: They donated money by text and credit card, scoured their closets for items to share and drove to the most ravaged areas to aid in the cleanup efforts.
They were motivated by generosity, not tax deductions, and that is how it should be in a crisis. But a well-placed writeoff does not hurt. The savvier you are about taxes, the further your philanthropic efforts will go.
The writeoff for charitable gifts is one of America's biggest tax breaks - it amounted to $158 billion on more than 37 million returns in tax year 2009, according to Internal Revenue Service data.
That is too much leverage to ignore. Here is our guide to navigating the tax aspects of charitable giving.
PERSONAL GIFTS DO NOT QUALIFY
People have been asking how they can help specific areas and get the tax deduction, says Ron Finkelstein, a tax partner at Marcum, in Melville, New York. “People live on the South Shore of Long Island and they want the money to go to that area. But you cannot give money to the American Red Cross and say, 'I want the money to go to Oceanside.'“
Finkelstein tells those who want to target specific locations to look for a local non-profit rather than a major disaster-relief group. And forget about deducting the help you give directly to individuals in need: “That would be a gift, not a charitable contribution.“
As with other charitable efforts, to take this write-off the volunteer work you do must be with a qualified organization; you cannot just wander around the storm-devastated Rockaways offering to help. And you will want to keep records about the trip and your expenses.
What about the would-be New York City marathoners who traveled to New York and then ended up volunteering for Hurricane Sandy cleanup efforts after the race was canceled? That is a gray area — but Marcum's Finkelstein says he would not recommend it.
Many of those volunteer efforts were ad hoc rather than through qualified charitable organizations, and fewer still lasted the entire trip. “That wasn't the main purpose of their travel,“ he says.