The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act likely wasn’t intended to discourage taxpayers from donating to charity, but the way the law was structured, it did. The TCJA increased the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for joint filers, and those figures have since risen to $12,400 and $24,800, respectively. These changes have reduced the number of taxpayers that itemize deductions. Since charitable contributions are an itemized deduction, many Americans no longer had an incentive to donate. In 2018, charitable contributions predictably declined, by about 1.7% when factoring in inflation.
For tax year 2020, however, the IRS implemented a few new changes that likely encouraged additional charitable contributions. For starters, the limit on charitable contributions, which is traditionally 60% of adjusted gross income, was eliminated. This means that taxpayers could deduct 2020 charitable contributions up to 100% of their AGI. Also, the IRS implemented a special $300 tax deduction for single filers (or $600 for joint filers) that applies even for those taxpayers that claim the standard deduction.
Regardless of your reasons for making charitable donations, there are ways to structure these gifts so that you maximize your personal tax benefits.
Last updated: Feb. 26, 2021
Bunch Your Donations
The standard deduction of $12,400 a year for individuals — and $24,800 for married couples — means that most people simply won’t be able to tally enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile. However, one method for getting around this is “bunching,” wherein you save up your contributions for a few years and donate them all in one lump sum in a single tax year. Depending on how much you give, you can still donate the same amount and itemize deductions at least some years.
How It Works
If you give about $4,000 a year to charity, take a tally of your donations and then direct that amount into a high-yield savings account or another interest-bearing account that ensures you’re collecting interest. Then, depending on your other potential donations, empty the account out every two or three years to make your donations.
On the years when you do make your donations, you will hypothetically clear the threshold for itemized deductions and still be able to secure the tax benefit. You might even consider planning ahead so that you can group other major purchases that would be deductible into the years when you know you’ll be itemizing.
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Of course, although writing one $16,000 check every three or four years might work best for you, it’s not necessarily ideal for charities that are working with limited reserves while they try to forward-plan budgets. That’s why you might consider making use of a donor-advised fund. A donor-advised fund can be set up in your name and allow you to make donations in a lump sum — potentially allowing you to itemize in that year — but will still mete out the money in a gradual and predictable way.
How It Works
You can set up your donor-advised fund with plenty of companies — though Charles Schwab and Fidelity run two of the biggest — and make your contribution in whatever year you plan to itemize. Then, you can choose investments to grow those funds while you select the charities of your choice. When you’re ready, you can direct a donation to the organizations you choose and it will be routed to them in the form of a grant. It’s effectively like a retirement account but instead of earmarking the money for your golden years, it’s designated for charitable giving.
While Fidelity used to have a $5,000 minimum, it has waived that requirement, and along with Charles Schwab requires no minimum to participate in a donor-advised fund. You can choose to make donations with a variety of assets from stocks and bonds to bitcoin or real estate. And if you use one for your bunching strategy, you can also simply plan to distribute your funds evenly over time while still making lump-sum contributions that will allow you to take advantage of itemizing deductions.
Transfer Directly From Your IRA
You can transfer up to $100,000 from a traditional IRA to a qualified charity tax-free each year after you’ve reached the age of 70 1/2. That direct transfer can take the place of a required minimum distribution (RMD) and won’t add to your taxable income. The same is not true if you take your distribution as income and then make a donation to charity, especially now that it’s unlikely you’ll need to itemize deductions.
How It Works
If you can get by on just your income from Social Security and/or a Roth IRA, this can be a great way to ensure your taxable income remains low — potentially reducing your overall tax burden and even helping you avoid a high-income surcharge for Medicare parts B and D.
Since you can’t avoid your RMDs, simply making them in the form of charitable contributions can be a great way to avoid paying more taxes than you need to while making a donation to an organization that’s important to you.
Of course, if juggling donations over several years just to create more work on your tax returns sounds like a real bummer, you might consider changing the way you give to get the most out of your donations. If you’re not as interested in making cash contributions if it doesn’t come with a tax benefit — or if you just don’t feel right letting one or two years lapse between donations — you might look into volunteering opportunities in your area. Plenty of charities have more need for labor than cash, and you can make a major difference by volunteering to help out.
How It Works
You should start with asking some of your favorite charities about volunteering opportunities. And, even if they don’t have any, they might be able to make some suggestions for places that do. You should also consider where you can be of the most value. If you have specialized skills, that could make your time especially valuable by offering your services as a lawyer or accountant to cash-strapped organizations with a dire need.
Although you can’t deduct the value of the time and services you offer to a charitable organization, you may be able to deduct some out-of-pocket expenses. For example, the IRS allows you to deduct the cost of gas and oil you need to drive to and from a charity where you are volunteering.
Charitable giving is important, but it’s also possible that you can achieve many of the same goals through your investing. Focusing your investments in areas you believe in can both do good and earn you returns. And depending on how specifically you plan your strategy, it’s possible to find businesses and funds that are focused on most of the same goals as your favorite charities. You can ask your broker for guidance, or just research socially responsible investment funds and browse your options.
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How It Works
Once you’ve found funds that adequately reflect your values, you can start investing money. In fact, if you set up a traditional IRA with the intent of making it your focused portfolio of sustainable funds, you can reduce your taxable income by making contributions to the fund like you would with any other traditional IRA. And, if you feel a little funny about potentially profiting from the transaction, don’t forget that you can also divert those funds directly to charities from your IRA once you reach 70 1/2, meaning your money could do twice the good in the end. You’ll contribute even more, in fact, when you factor in the added funds from your investment returns.
Most Americans don’t necessarily have room in their budget to simply boost their giving, but if you’re fortunate enough to consider it, the change in the tax law might be just the incentive for doing so. If your total potential deductions are close to $12,400 (or $24,800 if you’re married filing jointly), you might consider just upping the amount you give every year. It’s possible that — with the benefits of itemizing — you might reap considerable rewards on your taxes just for making a relatively small increase in your giving.
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How It Works
As with any plan for your taxes, be sure you’re checking with your accountant (or very carefully researching it on your own) before you commit to anything. However, getting a good sense of how your tax bill might change if you increase your donations by different amounts is going to arm you with the knowledge you need about how your total take-home income is affected in each scenario.
Besides, the worst-case scenario is simply that you donate more to charity, which — unless you really overdo it and blow up your annual budget — most likely isn’t going to be too upsetting for anyone with a giving spirit.
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John Csiszar contributed to the reporting for this article.