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Boost your charitable giving this year, in case the GOP tax bill becomes law

  • Proposed tax reforms would double the standard deduction and eliminate most other deductions.
  • Experts say giving two years' worth of donations now could ensure you get a tax break for your generosity.
  • Gifting stock this year allows you take advantage of current law that lets you choose which shares to donate, letting you avoid paying taxes on large capital gains.

As the season of charitable giving kicks off, it's a good time to plan how to minimize your 2017 tax bill while exercising your generosity.

This year, with tax legislation in Congress moving closer to possible passage, some experts are advising doing a few things differently when it comes to charitable donations. In short, it might be worthwhile to boost your giving.

"We're advising clients to make as many charitable contributions as they can afford," said Kim Garcia, a principal with Diversified Trust in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Although the tax break for charitable contributions is one of the few deductions retained under both the Senate and House tax bills, other changes would likely reduce its usefulness. Because the standard deduction would be doubled and most other deductions would disappear under proposed reforms, fewer taxpayers would itemize — which is the only way to take advantage of the deduction for charitable contributions.

One way to prepare for that would be to combine two years' worth of gifts into one.

"We're going to see more 'bunching' of deductions," Garcia said. "Instead of making gifts in two separate years, we might start seeing people doing it every other year to have a higher amount contributed in one year to get them over the [standard deduction] threshold."

While charitable contributions are generally limited to 50 percent of adjusted gross income, you can carry over to next year — and up to five years — any amount that exceeds the limit.

Another proposed change in the Senate tax legislation (but not in the House version) would affect the sale of stock, which might make it more beneficial to gift shares this year.

Charitable contributions in 2016

Giving by individuals $281.86 billion
Giving by foundations $59.28 billion
Giving by bequests $30.36 billion
Giving by corporations $18.55 billion
2016 charitable giving total $390.05 billion
Source: Giving USA 2017: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2016

Under current law, investors with taxable brokerage accounts have several choices when putting in a sell order for stock shares: They can direct their broker to sell the oldest shares first (the first-in-first-out or FIFO method) or direct the sale of shares that were purchased on a particular date (specific identification method). Those same choices apply when identifying shares to gift.

The Senate bill's provision eliminates the specific identification method. Stock investors would be required to divest their oldest shares first regardless of whether those shares come with the lowest cost basis.

When gifting stock, not only does the donor get to write off the value of the donation, they also avoid paying tax on any gains.

"The reason for gifting low-basis stock is to avoid the capital gains on that asset," Garcia said. "So if you have tax lots out there with a low basis, it's better to gift it to charity now while you can specifically identify them."

Where the charitable dollars go

Religion $122.94 billion
Education $59.77 billion
Human Services $46.80 billion
Foundations $40.56 billion
Health $33.14 billion
Public-society benefit $29.89 billion
International affairs $22.03 billion
Arts, culture and humanities $18.21 billion
Environment/animals $11.05 billion
Individuals $7.12 billion
Source: Giving USA 2017: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2016

If congressional efforts to change tax law fail, no harm will be done because you can still carry over any amount you can't write off this year.

Beyond those strategies, here are some tips to keep in mind while deciding where to direct your donations:

Donate to tax-exempt groups

For your generosity to count against your taxes, donations must go to tax-exempt organizations. These include 501(c)(3) nonprofits, churches and other religious organization, among others. You cannot deduct contributions made to individuals, political organizations and candidates.

Itemize your taxes

To use your charitable contributions against your taxes, you must itemize your deductions. This means for it to make financial sense, the combined value of all your deductions would need to exceed the standard deductions for 2017: $12,700 for married couples, $9,350 for heads of households and $6,350 for single filers and married couples filing separately.

"We're advising clients to make as many charitable contributions as they can afford." -Kim Garcia, Diversified Trust

Be aware of deduction limitations

Generally speaking, your total charitable contributions are deductible up to 50 percent of your adjusted gross income. For high earners — i.e., those with 2017 adjusted gross income of $261,500 or more for single filers and $313,800 for married couples filing jointly — so-called Pease limitations could cap the value of your deductions further.

Document your contributions

Regardless of the amount, you must be able to substantiate both cash and non-cash donations. For contributions worth $250 or more, you need written acknowledgement of the gift from the recipient organization. Donations of non-cash items worth $5,000 or more require a professional appraisal. While you do not file these records with your tax return, you must be able to produce them if you are audited.

Time your donation right

Unless you're carrying over an outsized charitable donation (see rules above), you can only take a deduction for a charitable donation for the year in which you made it. This means that if you want to use certain contributions against your 2017 taxes, you generally have until Dec. 31 to get it done. For gifts of stock or other assets held at a brokerage, the date the trade is executed is typically the official date of the gift.

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