The storm and stress of 2020 has made charities more vital to the public than ever. From health care to income support, their missions depend on the financial backing of their donors. With the holidays coming up and the year drawing to a close at last, now is an ideal time for charity-minded investors to think not only about which causes and organizations are closest to their hearts, but also about how to donate in a tax-efficient way.
The process of finding a charity and donating money seems simple. However, just like portfolio asset allocation, slightly different approaches can yield dramatically different results. Let’s look at the comparable after-tax benefits of three basic methods of charitable giving.
How much charitable giving is tax deductible?
Before we begin, let’s discuss how charitable donations are currently viewed under the tax code. First, charitable donations are deductible only for those taxpayers who itemize deductions. The standard federal deduction for 2020 is $12,400 for individuals and $24,800 for married couples filing jointly.
Second, normally the amount of the deduction is limited to 60% of adjusted gross income (AGI) for cash donations and 30% of AGI for stock. However, investors should keep in mind that this year the government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), which raised the deduction of cash donations to 100% of AGI, to help public charities during the pandemic.
Which method of charitable giving is best?
Cash is a convenient gift because it’s easy for donors to write checks for charities to deposit. The gift is also tax deductible in the current tax year. Consider a charitable gift of $50,000 in cash. Assuming the highest marginal tax rate of 37%, the donation can reduce the taxpayer’s AGI by $50,000, resulting in a tax bill that’s $18,500 lower ($50,000 x 37% = $18,500).
Having a highly appreciated portfolio position is great—until the investor is ready to sell that position. Given a 23.8% federal capital gains tax—which factors in the 3.8% Medicare surtax that applies to high earners—selling highly appreciated positions may be detrimental to investors. A way to completely avoid this liability is donating the stock to charity, which enables investors to make their desired donation, deducts its value from their AGI, and avoids the capital gains tax that gets applied to stock sales.
To analyze the tax benefits of charitable giving, we’ll assume the same $50,000 gift amount that we used in the cash example, but instead of cash we’ll assume the $50,000 gift consists of securities that have appreciated by 100%, therefore having an initial cost of $25,000. Keep in mind that the IRS allows investors to take deductions from donated securities only if the securities were held for at least one year and the dollar amount sold is less than 30% of the investor’s AGI.
The benefit of giving securities over cash is that the investor also avoids the tax liability embedded in the investment. In the example with the securities gift of $50,000, the embedded gain of $25,000 represents a tax liability of close to $6,000, assuming the highest capital gains tax rate of 23.8%. By giving these securities to charity, the investor avoids this capital gains tax. The charity is also free to sell the security tax free, making the gift as good as cash. Similar to the cash gift, the taxpayer in this example also gets a same-year tax deduction of $50,000, which reduces their AGI.