Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Does The IRS Want 1099s For Your Contributions?

I have been thinking about a recent IRS notice of proposed rulemaking. The IRS is proposing rules under its own power, arguing that it has the authority to do so under existing law.

This one has to do with charitable contributions.

You already know that one should retain records to back up a tax return, especially for deductions. For most of us that translates into keeping receipts and related cancelled checks.

Contributions are different, however.

In 1993 Congress passed Code section 170(f)(8) requiring you to obtain a letter (termed “contemporaneous written acknowledgement”) from the charity to document any donation over $250.  If you do not have a letter the IRS will disallow your deduction upon examination.

Congress felt that charitable contributions were being abused. How? Here is an example: you make a $5,000 donation to the University of Kentucky and in turn receive season tickets – probably to football, as the basketball tickets are near impossible to get. People were deducting $5,000, when the correct deduction would have been $5,000 less the value of those season tickets. Being unhappy to not receive 100 percent of your income, Congress blamed the “tax gap” and instituted yet more rules and requirements.

So begins our climb on the ladder to inanity.

Soon enough taxpayers were losing their charitable deductions because they failed to obtain a letter or failed to receive one timely. There were even cases where all parties knew that donations had been made, but the charity failed to include the “magic words” required by the tax Code.

Let’s climb on.

In October, 2015 the IRS floated a proposal to allow charities to issue Forms 1099s in lieu of those letters. Mind you, I said “allow.” Charities can continue sending letters and disregard this proposal.

If the charity does issue, then it must also forward a copy of the 1099s to the IRS. This has the benefit of sidestepping the donor’s need to get a timely letter from the charity containing the magic words.

Continue climbing: for the time-being charities have to disregard the proposal, as the IRS has not designed a Form 1099 even if the charity were interested.  Let’s be fair: it is only a proposal. The IRS wanted feedback from the real world before it went down this path.

Next rung: why would you give your social security number to a charity – for any reason? The Office of Personnel Management could not safeguard more than 20 million records from a data hack, but the IRS wants us to believe that the local High School Boosters Club will?

Almost there: the proposal is limited to deductible contributions, meaning that its application is restricted to Section 501(c)(3) organizations. Only (c)(3)s can receive deductible contributions.

But there is another Section 501 organization that has been in the news for several years – the 501(c)(4). This is the one that introduced us to Lois Lerner, the resignation of an IRS Commissioner, the lost e-mails and so on. A significant difference between a (c)(3) and a (c)(4) is the list of donors. A (c)(3) requires disclosure of donors who meet a threshold. A (c)(4) requires no disclosure of donors.    

You can guess how much credibility the IRS has when it says that it has no intention of making the 1099 proposal mandatory for (c)(3)s - or eventually extending it to also include (c)(4)s.

We finally reached the top of the ladder. What started as a way to deal with a problem (one cannot deduct those UK season tickets) morphed into bad tax law (no magic beans means no deduction) and is now well on its way to becoming another government-facilitated opportunity for identity theft.

The IRS Notice concludes with the following:

Given the effectiveness and minimal burden of the CWA process, it is expected that donee reporting will be used in an extremely low percentage of cases.”

Seems a safe bet.
UPDATE: After the writing of this post, the IRS announced that it was withdrawing these proposed Regulations. The agency noted that it had received approximately 38,000 comments, the majority of which strongly opposed the rules. Hey, sometimes the system works.

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