Planning to give to charities: should you consider a donor-advised fund?

It hasn’t been covered much, but charitable donation deductions were almost eliminated for the middle class in the tax “reforms”. You can only deduct your charitable contributions if you decide to itemize, and your allowable itemized deductions exceed $12,000 for a single and $24,000 for married filing jointly—and remember, all state and local taxes are capped at $10,000, no matter what your property tax is. If your mortgage interest is significant or your itemized deductions will exceed these caps, your charitable deductions will still be deductible. If not, nada.

There’s one exception. For the 2020 tax year, you can separately list up to $300/taxpayer as an “above the line” deduction, without itemizing. That’s not a fortune, but it’s something. But what if you give more, or plan to?

If your total allowable deductions exceed $12/24 K and you plan to itemize, then charitable donations will be deductible. Let’s say you pay $10,000 in property taxes, $14,000 for mortgage interest, and make a $10,000 charitable donation = $34,000 in itemized deductions.

But what if you’re married, with a paid off house, and your property tax is $10,000? Then you don’t get any deduction for the charitable donation, because you won’t itemize.  In this case, probably the simplest way to deduct charitable donations is to bunch them into years where your itemized deductions will exceed the standard deduction, even if that means you make the donation every other year. So, with $10,000 in property tax, and $20,000 ( 2 years’ worth of donations), you’ll have an itemized deduction of $30,000—but only $6,000 benefit over the standard $24,000 deduction. You’ll also have to park the yearly budgeted charitable amount in an account somewhere, and pay taxes on whatever the probably minimal earnings are.

Then there’s the donor-advised fund, available to set up at most of the big investment houses. When you establish this fund, you put in a large lump sum, for which you get a tax deduction in the year you contribute the money. Then, you can keep it invested (and hopefully growing) until you decide to distribute it. The investment house will gleefully set this up for you, AND charge you a yearly management fee of about .60% to park it in the investment(s) you select. For that, they’ll faun all over you and tell you what a good person you are. But this is another one of those instances where there’s money to be made off of you, so why not? Even better, they’ll work with your financial advisor, who will also charge you a fee. So just let me know, okay? (not!)

For the most part, it seems worthwhile to me to simply park your donations in your own investment account and avoid the .60% fee. You can always donate the appreciated investment and avoid capital gains taxes when you make the donation (if that’s a consideration). You’ll have to pay tax on any earnings (dividends, interest), but you can choose an investment with very low or no payouts of this kind. If this is a donation that you make pretty regularly, there probably won’t be that much in earnings anyway.

The one situation where I can see that a donor-advised fund makes sense is if you 1) receive a large, taxable payout in one year (as with a taxable executive compensation payout at retirement), 2) have charitable intent anyway, and 3) have sufficient taxable earnings in the same year that you can use the entire donation as a deduction. It’s not going to be a direct trade off—your deduction won’t reduce your taxes in the same amount, but you will get a break IF YOU INTENDED TO DONATE ANYWAY. Or maybe you think you’re a savvy enough investor that you can grow the money better and faster (over and above the management fee) than the charity’s endowment team can. Um.

Other than that, I think most charities would rather have the money now. Or every other year or three. In the meantime, you can always designate one of your investments or investment accounts as earmarked to be donated, keeping it invested until the year when you can itemize.

That’s the story as I see it. If anyone can point out other situations, I’d be happy to hear about them.

About the author

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Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.

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