Strategies for Giving
You've picked your charities. Now comes the
big question: How do you give them the money?
By KELLY K. SPORS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 28, 2005; Page R5
(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)
As the charitable pleas flood in at this time of year, choosing whom to give to is a big enough job. But often overlooked is the importance of deciding how one's gift should be made -- especially if you plan on giving a substantial amount.
Charitable giving can take many different forms. Choosing the right one depends on what your objectives are. For small gifts, writing a check is fine. But if you're thinking of a number in the thousands -- or millions -- tax and estate-planning considerations play a big part. So, too, does the amount of influence the giver wants to have over how a recipient spends the donation. If you want to make a large gift, or continuing gifts, but let someone else sweat the details, professional groups exist that supply advice and manage the funds.
"What you're trying to accomplish with your charitable giving should steer you to the right kind of vehicle," says Gene Tempel, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis.
Direct cash gifts have new allure this holiday season. As part of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, donors can take a tax deduction for up to 100% of adjusted gross income for cash gifts to a public charity through Dec. 31. But for many big donors, other ways of giving may be more appealing, now and in the long run. Here's a look at some strategies:
Estates donate the largest portion of charitable dollars each year, since many living donors don't want to hand out money they may need during their lifetime. You can donate directly through a will or by naming a charity as the beneficiary of, say, your individual retirement account.
More sophisticated approaches can reap benefits while you're still alive -- charitable trusts, for instance, of which there are two basic kinds: remainder trusts and lead trusts.
Remainder trusts generate an income for you or your heirs for life, with the assets left at death going to charity. The size of the income stream is set by the donor, though federal rules require it to be at least 5% a year of the trust's value, says James Lange, a Pittsburgh tax lawyer and author on retirement planning. Such trusts should be funded with at least $250,000, he says, since administrative fees can otherwise strip the benefit.
Most Americans gave to charities last year, a personal-finance poll finds. Remainder trusts can be set up either as a unitrust or an annuity trust. A unitrust pays a set percentage of income based on the fair market value of the fund each year, so the income stream can fluctuate. An annuity trust produces a fixed income stream based on the trust's original value.
Mr. Lange steers most clients to unitrusts, so they can benefit from potential growth, though some elderly clients prefer the safety of an annuity trust. Some donors also use the trust's income to purchase life-insurance policies.
The advantage to remainder trusts: While the charity won't see the money for years, you get a deduction on the current year's tax return. How much of a deduction depends on an Internal Revenue Service calculation that factors in the life expectancies of the grantors, or their heirs; the income stream produced; and the trust's expected total return over the years, using an IRS calculation based on interest rates at the time the trust is set up.
Older grantors often get a larger deduction since their bequest is likely to go to charity much sooner -- and thus be larger -- than a bequest from a remainder trust set up by a younger person. A 65-year-old couple that puts $1 million in a remainder unitrust that pays a 6% annual income, for example, would get a $288,790 tax deduction for this year, Mr. Lange says, using current IRS data, while a 45-year-old couple setting up an identical trust would get about a $104,140 deduction.
Two caveats: The deduction for the year in which the gift is made is capped at 30% of your annual adjusted gross income -- though if your total allowed deduction exceeds the cap, you can claim the rest over the next five years. Second, couples in their 20s to mid-30s may not be able to set up a remainder trust because of what's called the 10% remainder test. The estimated value of the trust's remainder once it passes to charity must equal 10% or more of the trust's original value in order for the trust to be valid.
Remainder trusts are great places to park highly appreciated assets -- even houses -- since the income is tax-exempt. Those who are house-rich can set up a remainder trust in which they leave their home to charity but continue to live in it until death. This is known as a retained life estate, which comes with an upfront tax deduction based on the house's current fair market value, the IRS-calculated interest rate and your life expectancy.
Lead trusts are less common than remainder trusts and work in reverse: A steady income goes to the designated charity for the duration of the trust -- which can be for a lifetime or for a specific term of years -- and the remainder goes to the heirs. Lead trusts are used primarily to bequeath money to heirs and to minimize estate-tax bills by donating to charity along the way. Usually an investment of $1 million or more is needed for a lead trust to be useful to donors, says David Ratcliffe, director of Merrill Lynch & Co.'s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management.
What's most appealing about a lead trust is that if it is well invested, your heirs can be doubly blessed with a big gift from the IRS.
Here's what can happen: Suppose you put $1 million into a charitable lead trust with instructions to pay $100,000 annually to charity for 10 years. The IRS assumes that the donations will eat into the trust's value, but also that the trust will earn a certain return, so that, say, $190,000 is eventually left to the heirs. But thanks to some stellar investing, perhaps $2 million will be left to heirs because the trust's value grew dramatically even though it was distributing income. For estate-tax purposes, it doesn't matter. The gift to heirs is fixed at $190,000, regardless of what is actually left.
The ideal investments for lead trusts are usually assets with potential for great growth, like growth stocks or commercial real-estate that produces steady income. One caution, however: If the trust produces income at a rate greater than what is dictated to be paid to charity, the trust must pay tax on the excess income at a rate of up to 35%.
Charitable trusts can be set up through a financial planner or attorney, though many charities themselves will help you arrange one. (That's only prudent if you're 100% sure you want your money going to that charity.) A trust is irrevocable once it is set up, but sometimes donors can reserve the right to change the charity that gets the money.
Donors who want to give money now but want help selecting sound charities might look into a community foundation.
About 700 such foundations exist nationwide. Most focus on charitable causes in a city or region, and hire full-time staff members who do research, write grants and assist donors with their giving. Donations are treated like a direct gift to a public charity and provide a tax deduction for the full amount, up to 50% of adjusted gross income, in the year the foundation receives the money.
Donors giving several thousand dollars or more can often elect how much control they want over how their gift is eventually distributed. Using so-called donor-advised funds, the foundation can serve as a kind of clearinghouse for your wishes. Your donation is set aside in a separate fund parked in relatively safe investments such as index or money-market funds. Whenever you desire, you can request that a donation be made from your fund to a specific charity. The foundation then checks whether the charity is a qualified nonprofit adhering to its mission, and either accepts or declines the recommendation.
PODCAST: One strategy for making the most of your charitable donations is to give to so-called contrarian programs -- causes that most donors dismiss or don't even know about. WSJ's Elizabeth Bernstein interviews Calvin Edwards, a philanthropy adviser in Atlanta, who discusses why some charities are overlooked, how to go about finding them and what donors to such programs should be wary of.Donors, "at their leisure, as they build up knowledge, can start making gift recommendations," says Catherine Stringer, spokeswoman for the California Community Foundation, which focuses on Los Angeles County. Donors with advised funds can make gifts to any charity they want, even if it's not located in the county.
"They can make donations all across the globe, if they want to," Ms. Stringer says. "If it all checks out, we make the grant." Other community foundations may restrict donors' gifts to their region, so it's important to know the rules beforehand.
Most community foundations require that you get started with at least $5,000 to $10,000 in a donor-advised fund. There are also some management fees that usually range from 0.5% to 2% of the fund's balance every year.
If you don't want to hold the purse strings, you can give to the community foundation's unrestricted funds or set up a field-of-interest fund, designating the types of causes you want to support. Community foundations frequently also offer trusts, and can accept noncash gifts such as artwork, property and stock.
Some brokerage firms, including Fidelity Investments and Merrill Lynch, offer donor-advised funds, often called charitable-gift funds. These funds, which usually charge around 1% in yearly management fees, are similar to what's available through community foundations, except you may have more investment options.
The flip side: They may offer less guidance than a community foundation.
When total control is the primary goal, setting up a private foundation is an option. But that control doesn't come cheap.
Private foundations are best suited for philanthropists looking to give several million dollars who want to dictate who gets the money, when and how often; in many cases the donor has enormous influence over how charities use the donations.
It usually costs several thousand dollars just to start a private foundation, and annual management fees can run as high as 4% of the total value, Mr. Ratcliffe of Merrill Lynch says.
Donations gets less-favorable tax treatment than gifts to public charities. Donors can deduct 30% of cash contributions and 20% of asset and stock gifts.
Vaughn W. Henry, an estate and charitable-gift consultant in Springfield, Ill., cautions against setting up a private foundation with less than $10 million, since administrative costs can eat up the assets. "A charitable foundation does not have enough heft to stand on its own with a million bucks," Mr. Henry says.
Private foundations also must abide by strict rules. They are required by law to donate at least 5% of their total assets each year and sometimes have to pay an excise tax of 1% to 2% on investment income.
Similar to private foundations, supporting organizations help big donors exert influence over a charity.
But they operate under less-strict rules than private foundations, and they get more favorable tax treatment -- the same tax deduction that direct gifts to a public charity receive.
Usually about $500,000 is required for a supporting organization to be effective. Donors relinquish direct control over the money, but get to select a board that decides how the funds get allocated and to what project. A supporting organization typically gives to a single charity, and the majority of board members must come from the charity itself.
Some lawmakers have scrutinized supporting organizations in recent years because they offer donors a way to get a hefty tax deduction while getting vast control over the money after it's donated.
"The supporting organization has the capacity to use the carrot and stick to affect behavior," Mr. Henry says. "There's a lot of politicking that goes on inside these things."
--Ms. Spors is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in South Brunswick, N.J.
Write to Kelly K. Spors at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications:
Donors making cash contributions to private foundations can take a tax deduction of as much as 30% of their adjusted gross income in one year. For donations of appreciated securities, they can deduct 20% of their adjusted gross income. Other assets are treated less favorably. Any leftover deduction can be carried forward for as long as five more years. This article failed to note that deductions can be carried forward and that the deduction limits are percentages of adjusted gross income, and incorrectly said the 20% figure applies to all asset and stock gifts.