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Tax Deductible Donations for Charity: How It Works and 3 Steps to Save

Donate, document and don't forget the little stuff.
June 10, 2019
Income Taxes, Personal Finance, Personal Taxes, Taxes
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Tax deductible donations are contributions of money or goods to a tax-exempt organization. They can mean hefty savings when you file your taxes, though to claim these tax deductible donations to charity, you must itemize on your tax return.

Claiming tax deductible donations on your tax return

  • Itemize at tax time. When you file your tax return every year, you’ll need to itemize your deductions in order to claim tax deductible donations to charity. That means filling out Schedule A along with the rest of your tax return.
  • Weigh the costs and benefits ahead of time. Itemizing can take more time and require more expensive tax software or create a higher bill from your tax preparer. Plus, if your standard deduction is more than the sum of your itemized deductions, it might be worth it to abandon itemizing and take the standard deduction instead.

» MORE: Learn the difference between itemizing and taking the standard deduction

Things to remember about tax deductible donations

Tax deductible donations must meet certain guidelines, or you won’t get the extra cash to accompany your good deed. Here’s how to make your tax year a little sweeter.

1. Donate to a qualifying organization

  • Your charitable giving will qualify for a tax deduction only if it goes to a tax-exempt organization, as defined by section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Examples of qualified institutions include religious organizations, the Red Cross, nonprofit educational agencies, museums, volunteer fire companies and organizations that maintain public parks.
  • An organization can be nonprofit without 501(c)(3) status, which can make it tricky to ensure your charity of choice counts.
  • You can verify an organization’s status with the IRS Exempt Organizations Select Check tool.
  • Before you donate, ask the charity how much of your contribution will be tax-deductible.
  • In general, you can deduct up to 50% of your adjusted gross income via charitable donations, but you may be limited to 20% or 30% depending on the type of contribution and the organization (contributions to certain private foundations, veterans organizations, fraternal societies, and cemetery organizations come with a lower limit, for instance). IRS Publication 526 has the details. The limit applies to all donations you make throughout the year, no matter how many organizations you donate to.
  • Contributions that exceed the limit can often be deducted on your tax returns over the next five years — or until they’re gone — through a process called a carryover.

2. Document your contributions

Keep track of your tax deductible donations, no matter the amount. If you made a monetary contribution, qualifying documentation includes a bank statement, a credit card statement and a receipt from the charity (including date, amount and name of the organization) or a cancelled check. If you made a contribution as an automatic deduction from your paycheck through your employer, keep copies of your W-2 or pay stubs showing the amount and date of your donation.

You’ll need additional documentation in these circumstances:

Cash or property donations worth more than $250: The IRS requires you to get a written letter of acknowledgment from the charity. It must include the amount of cash you donated, whether you received anything from the charity in exchange for your donation, and an estimate of the value of those goods and services. You must receive the letter of acknowledgement by the date you file your taxes (usually April 15) for the year you made the contribution.

If you deduct at least $500 worth of noncash donations: Fill out Form 8283 if you’ll deduct at least $500 in donated items. Additionally, you must attach an appraisal of your items to the form if they’re worth more than $5,000 total.

3. Don’t miss out on tax deductions for volunteering

IRS rules don’t let you deduct the value of your time or service, but expenses related to volunteering for a qualified organization can be tax deductible donations.

  • Expenses must be directly and solely connected with the volunteer work you provided; not previously reimbursed; and not personal, living, or family expenses.
  • Your tax deductible donations can include mileage you drive to charitable events and volunteer opportunities, or mileage you used to bring items to a donation site.
  • You can either deduct your actual expenses using receipts for gas and similar costs, or you can take the standard mileage deduction. For 2019, it’s 14 cents per mile when you use a vehicle in service of a charitable organization.
  • Keep your receipts if you plan to deduct your actual expenses.