Personal Finance

Retirees may score a charitable write-off with this year-end strategy

Key Points
  • Retirees eyeing a year-end charitable gift may still score a write-off with donations from their individual retirement account. 
  • Investors age 70½ and older may use qualified charitable distributions, or QCDs, to donate up to $100,000 per year.
  • The transfers may count as required minimum distributions at age 72 and reduce income, satisfying other tax goals, financial experts say.
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'Tis the season for charitable giving, and retirees eyeing a year-end donation may still score a write-off with transfers from their individual retirement account.  

Qualified charitable distributions, or QCDs, are direct gifts from an IRA to an eligible charity. Investors age 70½ and older may donate up to $100,000 per year, and it may count as their required minimum distribution once they turn 72.  

While the maneuver doesn't provide a charitable deduction, donors may see other significant tax benefits, financial experts say.

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"For most people, most of the time, you're going to be better off doing this as your first source of charitable giving," said certified financial planner David Foster, founder of Gateway Wealth Management in St. Louis.

The primary benefit of a QCD is that the transfer doesn't count as taxable income, he said.

Since fewer Americans itemize deductions, it can be difficult to claim a write-off for charitable gifts. However, retirees taking the standard deduction may still benefit from a QCD because it won't be part of their adjusted gross income, Foster said.

Moreover, a QCD reduces their IRA balance, cutting the size of future required minimum distributions, he said.  

"That's a relatively small benefit for most people but still relevant," Foster added.

Perks of less adjusted gross income

While most people don't make charitable donations solely because of the tax breaks, QCDs may offer a big one: reducing adjusted gross income.

"That's important because [higher] adjusted gross income often triggers a lot of other tax ramifications," said JoAnn May, a CFP and CPA with Forest Asset Management in Berwyn, Illinois.

For example, more adjusted gross income may cause a hike in monthly premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D, she said.

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The surcharge, known as the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount, or IRMAA, adds an extra fee for a year once income exceeds a certain level.

"IRMAA is a big issue with my retired clients," May said. "They don't like paying it."

Another example is the medical expense write-off. Those who itemize deductions may claim a tax break for qualified expenses that exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income. However, higher income creates a steeper hurdle to claim the deduction, she said. 

QCD missteps

One of the biggest issues with QCDs is that the transfers aren't separate on Form 1099-R, which reports retirement plan distributions to the IRS. 

For example, if someone withdraws $50,000 in a year and $20,000 is for a QCD, the form will still report $50,000 in total distributions, even though only $30,000 is taxable income, Foster said. 

"It's up to you to keep track of how much of that money went directly to charity," he said.   

Additionally, the payment from the IRA must be made out to the charity. If someone writes a check from their IRA to a charity at the end of December, it must clear from their IRA by Dec. 31 to count for the year, May said.

Retirees, however, may bypass the issue by having their custodian cut the check.