Monday, June 4, 2012

A Church Contribution Story: Durden

Our next two blogs discuss tax fails involving charitable contributions.

What each has in common is congressional resolve to address an area considered subject to tax abuse. How so? How many times has someone overvalued a Goodwill clothing donation, for example? Congress therefore placed restrictions – primarily documentation requirements – on one’s ability to deduct contributions. The general tax rule is simple: no documentation equals no deduction.  The key is to understand what Congress considers documentation, as your understanding may be different from theirs.

Let’s talk about Durden.

David and Veronda Durden contributed $25,171 in 2007 to the Nevertheless Community Church. With the exception of five checks (totaling $317), all checks were over $250.

FIRST RULE: Under Code Section 170(f)(8)(A), no deduction is allowed for any contribution of $250 or more unless taxpayer has contemporaneous written acknowledgment of the contribution by the charity organization that meets specified requirements.

The Durdens cleared the first rule, as they had a letter from the church dated January 10, 2008.

SECOND RULE: Under Code Section 170(f)(8)(B), the charity must state in the acknowledgment whether it provided any goods or services as consideration for the contributed property or cash. If so, it must include a description and good faith estimate of the value of any goods or services provided.

There is a problem: the church did not include language “no goods and services have been provided” in their letter.

The Durdens obtained a second letter dated June 21, 2009 containing the same information found in the first letter, plus a statement that no goods or services were provided in exchange for the contributions.

THIRD RULE: Code Section 170(f)(8)(C) considers the acknowledgment as contemporaneous if obtained on or before the earlier when the tax return is due or the actual filing date.

The IRS disallowed all but $317 of the charitable deduction for insufficient documentation. The Durdens go to Tax Court. Their argument is reasonable: we substantially complied with the spirit of the law. We had a letter. It might not be exactly the letter the IRS wanted, but we had a letter. When the IRS wanted more, we got them more. The IRS went too far in disallowing the deduction when everyone knows we gave to the church. We even showed them cancelled checks.  The wording in Code Section 170(f)(8)(C) is only one way – a safe harbor maybe – of meeting the “contemporaneous” standard.

The Tax Court disagreed. It noted that Congress intended to tighten the rules in this area and placed specific language in the Code requiring and defining “contemporaneous.” This was not the IRS’ doing; it was Congress’ doing.  The Court in the past had been lenient in cases involving substantial procedural compliance. This was not procedure. This was legislative compliance, and the matter was outside the Court’s hands.

The Durdens did not have the correct letter when they filed their return. That is the last possible date according to the law. There is no deduction. The Court did let them deduct $317, however. Since those individual contributions were under $250, those didn’t require a letter.

MY TAKE: I can understand Congress passing near-incomprehensible tax law to address complex and sophisticated tax issues. Those taxpayers are likely to have expert tax advisors and planners. This is not one of those issues. This is someone donating to a church. I strongly disapprove of routine activities triggering tax rules that make no sense to an average person.  

Congress should have included a “sanity” clause in this statute. They could have given the IRS discretion to accept “other but equal” documentation. True, the IRS could refuse to do so, but at least there would be a chance that the IRS – or a court reviewing the IRS – could blunt the capriciously sharp edge of this tax law.

Next time we will talk about Mohamed.

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