Personal Finance

Hey, bitcoin millionaire: Give away your fortune for a tax break

Key Points
  • Fidelity Charitable received $11 million in donations from bitcoin holders in 2017.
  • The value of one bitcoin has surpassed $16,000.
  • It can take 24 to 36 hours to turn your bitcoin gift into cash for your donor-advised fund.
What advisors say about bitcoin
What advisors say about bitcoin

Now that bitcoin is surging past $16,000, it might be time to give it to charity.

It's no secret that the IRS has kept an eye on the wildly popular cryptocurrency, ruling that bitcoin and others like it are considered property for tax purposes. This means that if you cash out, you're likely on the hook to report capital gains to the Tax Man – and those gains can be substantial, particularly if you bought bitcoin back in 2010 when one unit was worth less than a dollar.

There's a solution to that: Give your cryptocurrency to charity via your donor advised fund – an account that you can fund with highly appreciated assets and use for making grants to charities -- instead of cashing out.

Cryptocurrency is still what we'd call a niche donation.
Matt Nash
Fidelity Charitable

This way, you unload assets that could face steep capital gains taxes and you collect a charitable contribution deduction for your 2017 taxes.

But rapid fluctuations in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies present charitable organizations with an interesting problem: How do they capture the value of a volatile asset?

"It's interesting how volatile cryptocurrency can be in 24 hours," said Eileen Hesiman, president and CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust. "One gift lost about 12 percent of its value in a 36 hour period. Our policy is to sell as quickly as we can."

Here's how donor-advised fund providers and charities are processing your gifts of cryptocurrency.

Cashing out

Providers of donor advised funds are accepting bitcoin donations, as are many charitable organizations themselves, including United Way Worldwide. Rather than holding on to cryptocurrency, however, the funds work with a currency exchange company such as Coinbase to convert the gifts to cash.

In that manner, Fidelity Charitable has received $18 million in bitcoin donations since it started accepting the cryptocurrency in 2015. In 2017 alone, donors gave $11 million of that total, earmarking the cash for their donor advised funds, said Matt Nash, senior vice president of donor engagement at Fidelity Charitable.

Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Fidelity doesn't hold bitcoin, but processes these donations through Coinbase and deposits the cash after conversion into the donor's account. Fidelity is also accepting gifts of Ethereum, a newer form of cryptocurrency, and has received about $125,000 worth of gifts in that form this year.

"Cryptocurrency is still what we'd call a niche donation," said Nash. "These are people who have significant means and are using it as part of their portfolio investment strategy.

"Assets that have increased in value are good for donating to a donor advised fund."

Capturing value

If you make a gift of cryptocurrency and its value plummets sharply the following day, you will still be able to claim the full fair market value as of the day you surrendered the assets, said Heisman of the National Philanthropic Trust.

"When they lose control of the gift, it's a completed gift, and they get the deduction for the higher amount," she said.

A year ago, it took weeks to liquidate cryptocurrency and get the cash into donors' accounts, Heisman said. Now, the National Philanthropic Trust can work with one of its exchange partners to sell a donated gift in 24 to 36 hours.

One gift lost about 12 percent of its value in a 36 hour period. Our policy is to sell as quickly as we can.
Eileen Hesiman
National Philanthropic Trust

More gifts may be on their way as the year draws to a close and donors take stock of this year's many humanitarian crises. The United Way saw its bitcoin contributions double after Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida suffered during hurricane season this year.

"Generally, bitcoin contributions are used to fund our work in health, education and financial stability, as well as special causes such as our efforts to support long-term recovery after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria," wrote Kenneth C. Euwema, vice president and controller of United Way Worldwide, in an e-mail to CNBC.

Janus' Bill Gross: Bitcoin needs to reduce volatility before becoming a legitimate currency
Janus' Bill Gross: Bitcoin needs to reduce volatility before becoming a legitimate currency