Article Highlights:

  • Watch Out for Holiday Gift Scams
  • Gifts with Tax Benefits
  • Gift of College Tuition
  • Qualified Tuition Programs
  • Qualified Charitable Distribution
  • Donor-Advised Funds
  • Work Equipment
  • Employee Gifts
  • Monetary Gifts to Individuals
  • Documentation
  • Timing
  • Special Rules for 2020 Contributions

The holiday season is customarily a time of giving gifts, whether to your favorite charity, family members or others. Some gifts even provide a variety of tax benefits.

But be wary; during the holiday season, you may receive phone calls, emails, snail mail, or appeals on social networking sites for donations for various causes. However, some of these appeals may come from fraudsters and not legitimate charities. Unfortunately, this happens every holiday season.

So, before writing a check or giving your credit card number to a charity that you aren’t familiar with, check them out so you can be assured that your donation will end up in the right hands. Follow these tips to make sure that your charitable contributions will actually go to the cause you are supporting:

  • Donate to charities that you know and trust. Be alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight and that you are not familiar with.
  • Ask if a caller is a paid fundraiser, who they work for, and what percentage of your donation goes to the charity and fundraiser. If you don’t get clear answers—or if you don’t like the answers you get—consider donating to a different organization.
  • Don’t give out personal or financial information, such as your credit card or bank account number, unless you are sure that the charity is reputable.
  • Never send cash. You can’t be sure that the organization will receive your donation, and you won’t have a record for tax purposes.
  • Never wire money to someone who claims to be from a charity. Scammers often request donations to be wired because wiring money is like sending cash: Once you send it, you can’t get it back.
  • If a donation request comes from a charity that claims to help a local community group (for example, police or firefighters), ask members of that group if they have heard of the charity and if it is actually providing financial support.
  • Check out the charity’s reputation online using Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or other online watchdogs.

Gifts with Tax Benefits

A Gift of College Tuition – An interesting quirk in the gift tax laws is that an individual can pay a student’s higher-education tuition directly to a qualified school, college, or university, and it will be exempt from gift tax and gift tax reporting. What student wouldn’t love to have part of their tuition paid? It would make a great gift.

As an aside, college tuition generally qualifies for a federal income tax credit. Another quirk in the tax laws says that the education credit goes to the individual who claims the child (student) as a dependent, generally resulting in a gift to the child’s parents in the form of the tax credit.

Example: Whitney is attending college as the dependent of her mother and father. Whitney’s grandfather makes a tuition payment directly to the college; since it was made directly to the school, Whitney’s grandfather does not have any gift tax issues. Since Whitney is a dependent of her parents, her parents would claim any available tuition credit. Thus, by paying the tuition, Grandpa made a gift of tuition to his granddaughter and a gift of the tuition credit to her parents.

Qualified Tuition Program (Sec. 529 plans) – These arrangements allow taxpayers to put away large amounts of money, limited only by the projected cost of a college education, which varies from state to state with some plans capped at more than $525,000. The account’s earnings are tax-free if used to pay tuition and certain other college expenses, so the sooner the account is funded, the more it can earn. There are no limits on the number of donors or on age or income. The contributions are subject to the gift tax if the annual contribution exceeds the annual gift tax exclusion amount ($15,000 for 2020).

As of 2018, tax-free distributions of up to $10,000 per year per designated beneficiary are allowed for tuition (no other expenses are allowed) in connection with enrollment or attendance at elementary or secondary schools, including public, private and religious schools. However, this option should be considered cautiously, as Sec. 529 plans work best when the money put into the plan is allowed to grow for a long period of time.

Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCDs) – Individuals age 70.5 or over can transfer up to $100,000 annually from their IRAs to qualified charities without the distribution being taxable. Although required minimum distributions (RMDs) are suspended for 2020, in other years, QCDs will count toward your annual RMD requirement. So, you might want to consider using QCDs for your smaller contributions. Contact your IRA custodian or trustee to arrange the transfer, which needs to be completed by December 31, 2020, to count for 2020. So, it’s best not to wait until the last minute to initiate the transfer.

Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) – If you would like to make a substantial tax-deductible charitable donation this year but have the ability to spread the actual distribution of funds to specific charities over a number of years, a donor-advised fund may fill that need. There are any number of reasons individuals choose DAFs, including making a substantial charitable donation in an exceptionally high-income year.

A DAF is a separate fund (account) set up within a public charity to which a donor makes a contribution. The donor then advises the sponsoring organization on how to ultimately distribute the funds from the account as charitable gifts over the course of many years. The fund isn’t required to follow the donor’s requests, but most do.

Tax law allows the sponsoring organization to be independent, community-based, religiously affiliated, or connected with a financial institution. Minimum contributions typically range from $5,000 to $25,000. The sponsoring organization manages the administration of the fund and handles the tax reporting, usually for an annual fee of 1%.

You get to take a tax deduction for your entire donation in the year you contribute the funds or assets to the DAF. In addition, the funds that are not distributed are invested and grow until eventually being disbursed to the charitable organization(s).

Work Equipment – If your spouse is self-employed and you purchase tools or electronics used in your spouse’s business, the costs of gifts qualify as a business tax deduction on the return for the year when the equipment is put into service.

Gifts to Employees – It is common practice this time of year for employers to give their employees gifts. If a gift is infrequently offered and has a fair market value so low that it is impractical and unreasonable to account for it, the gift’s value is treated as a de minimis fringe benefit. As such, it would be tax-free to the employee, and its cost would be tax deductible by the employer. However, be cautious, as any amount of cash given to an employee must be treated as taxable wages.

Monetary Gifts to Individuals – If you are have a high net worth, you are no doubt aware that when you pass away, your estate may be subject to federal (and possibly a state) estate tax once the value of your estate exceeds an excludable amount. With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), effective in 2018, the estate tax exclusion amount was more than doubled, from $5.49 million in 2017 to $11.18 million in 2018. It has been inflation-adjusted each year since, so the 2020 exclusion amount is $11.58 million.

However, in case you have forgotten, most of the provisions of the TCJA are temporary and expire after 2025, at which time the estate tax exclusion will revert back to the pre-TCJA level. Estimating the inflation adjustments, the 2026 exclusion amount would be reduced to approximately $6.25 million. Any amount of your estate in excess of the exclusion amount will be subject to the estate tax, which currently has a top rate of 40%. If you are married, the estate tax applies to the second spouse to pass away.

The value of gifts you make to individuals during your lifetime reduces the estate tax exclusion amount available to offset the value of your estate when you pass away. However, the estate tax exclusion is only reduced when the gifts you make during life exceed an annual amount, which is $15,000 for 2020. That annual exclusion applies per individual, meaning you can give up to the exclusion amount to as many people you’d like every year, whether or not they are related to you, without reducing the estate tax exclusion. Unlike gifts to qualified charitable organizations, gifts to individuals are not tax deductible.

Of course, there is a strong chance with the change in administration in Washington, D.C., that the lifetime gift and estate tax exclusion could be reduced before 2026. Congress would need to agree to lower the exclusion amount.

Even though gifting assets while living may reduce your estate’s tax liability, the decision to gift assets while still living is a personal one depending upon your particular circumstances.

Additionally, while the estate tax exclusion will decline after 2025, the IRS has said that the value of gifts made before then (when a higher lifetime gift and estate tax exclusion applied) won’t have to be adjusted for the reduced exemption.


Documentation – To claim a tax deduction for gifts to qualified charitable organizations, you must have substantiation. For cash contributions (gifts paid by cash, check, electronic funds transfer or credit card), you cannot claim a tax deduction, regardless of the amount, unless you have a bank record (canceled check, bank or credit union statement or credit card statement) showing the name of the qualified organization, the contribution date and the amount of the contribution. A receipt (or a letter or other written communication) from the qualified organization showing the name of the organization, the date of the contribution and the amount of the contribution can be substituted for a bank record. For cash contributions of $250 or more and noncash donations, additional requirements not covered in this article apply.

With documentation requirements in mind, here are some words of caution about charitable contributions during the holiday season:

  • When you are shopping at a mall and drop cash into the holiday collection kettle, you likely won’t get a receipt for your contribution, and a cash charitable contribution cannot be claimed as a tax deduction without documentation.
  • The same goes for buying and giving new, unused toys to holiday toys-for-kids drives, which have become very popular. Tip: Save the purchase receipt for the toys and request verification of the contribution from the sponsoring organization. If the drop point for the toys is unmanned and it is not possible to obtain a contribution verification from the organization, the IRS will allow a deduction of up to $249, provided you document the purchase of your donation.

Timing – Charitable contributions are deductible in the year in which you make them. If you charge a gift to a credit card before the end of the year, it will count for 2020. This is true even if you don’t pay the credit card bill until 2021. In addition, a check will count for 2020 as long as you mail it in 2020.

Special CARES Act Rules for 2020 Contributions – Normally, to get a tax benefit from making a charitable contribution, you need to itemize your deductions. The CARES Act, passed into law in late March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, created an above-the-line charitable contribution for taxpayers who claim the standard deduction instead of itemizing their deductions. This allows a charitable deduction for cash contributions made in 2020 to qualified charities, but not to a DAF, of up to $300. The $300 maximum applies to all filing statuses (so it is $300, not $600, for a married couple filing a joint return).

In the same legislation, Congress relaxed some of the restrictions related to how much a taxpayer can deduct as an itemized charitable contribution in any given year. Under normal circumstances, cash contributions are limited to 60% of a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income (AGI). However, the CARES Act has increased the AGI limit for cash contributions (other than to DAFs) to 100% for 2020. Any amount in excess of 100% can be carried over and deducted from subsequent years’ returns until the excess is used up, but for no more than five years.

If you have questions about how any of these suggestions might impact your tax situation, please give this office a call; happy holidays.