How to protect the deduction for a last minute donation
Question #1: You use your credit card to donate to a qualified charity on December 31 this year. You don’t pay the credit card bill until January next year. For which year do you get to take the charitable contribution deduction on your federal (IRS) income taxes?
Answer: Donations charged to a credit card before the end of the year count for that year. This is true even if the credit card bill isn’t paid until the next year. In other words, credit card contributions are deductible in the year the charge is entered into the system. The timing is easy to prove — you use the date on the credit card slip or receipt.
Question #2: Instead of using a credit card, you use your bank debit card or PayPal account (that draws directly from your bank account) to make the December 31 donation. Your bank statement doesn’t show up until January. For which year do you get to take the contribution deduction?
Answer: Again, its this year. The donation dollars are actually removed from your account on December 31. The timing is easy to prove — you use the date shown on the debit card or PayPal receipt.
Question #3: You write a check and mail it to a qualified charity on December 31 this year. The charity doesn’t receive the check until next year. For which year do you get to take the contribution deduction?
Answer: This is trickier. You get the deduction for the year in which you gave up control of the check. Putting the check (properly addressed) in the mail on December 31 means you gave up control on December 31 — you should get the deduction for this year. But how do you prove you put the check (properly addressed) in the mail on December 31?
- A December 31 postmark will help, assuming that the charity notes that in its written acknowledgement (but not all charities provide that service).
- Dropping the envelope in a mailbox on December 31 won’t necessarily get you a December 31 postmark.
- A December 31 certificate of mailing from the Postal Service should work, showing the address you sent the envelope to. Make sure you get to the Post Office during operations hours.
- A December 31 Express Mail receipt should work just like a certificate of mailing, and already includes the address you sent the envelope to.
The easiest, surest way to protect your charitable year-end donation deductions is to use a credit card, debit card or PayPal-type payment system, and hold on to your charge slip or receipt. If you’re going to mail a check on December 31, get over to the Post Office and get a certificate of mailing or use Express Mail.
One more thought: Remember that credit card, debit card and PayPal processing charges are typically borne by the receiving charity. The bigger the donation the bigger the processing charge. When possible, send a check or use your online banking system. And if you send a check, be able to prove when you sent it (see Question #3).
What do you think? Had other experiences?
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A colleague tells me that sometimes charity websites don’t put charges through to the credit card company until a few days after they occur. That would concern me, so I’d make sure to keep a written record that shows when I made the donation at the website. Since that’s when I gave up control of the money, I’d use that as my proof of donation timing even if my credit card statement didn’t show the charge as happening until the next year.