It's the time of year when many taxpayers turn to funding their charitable giving before year-end. The tax code has allowed taxpayers who itemize to deduct charitable donations from taxable income. Tax reform will reduce the ranks of itemizers, however.
Many taxpayers who traditionally itemized will take advantage of the increase in the standard deduction instead. The Tax Policy Center estimates that 8 percent of households will take the charitable deduction in 2018 compared to 21 percent last year. Little wonder charitable organizations worry.
I hope the consensus expectation is wrong. One sliver of optimism is that the biggest contributors to charity — measured as a percentage of income — are lower income households. They typically don't itemize. For example, the top 20 percent of Americans gave away 1.3 percent of their income to charity in 2011. The bottom fifth donated 3.2 percent of income. With planning, more former itemizers could emulate lower-income households with their generosity.
Financial advisers are also promoting another strategy: donor-advised funds. In a sense, you get to create your own family foundation on the cheap with donor-advised funds. They have grown rapidly since the 1990s as mutual fund companies like Fidelity and Vanguard created low-cost donor-advised funds.
The mechanics are relatively simple. You donate cash, stocks and similar assets into the account. Appreciated assets like stock are popular since the giver avoids capital gains taxes. You get an immediate charitable deduction on the total contribution, while you give the money away in the future. Technically, you can only recommend — not direct — that the fund send donations to the charity or charities of your choice. In practice, the fund sponsor follows your wishes.
With the new tax law, the basic idea is for well-off households to lump together enough money so that they can itemize their charitable giving in one tax year. The money goes into a donor-advised fund. In other years the household may give less and use the standard deduction. But households can make charitable payouts from the fund.
Critics make a compelling case that participants aren't nearly as aggressive as they could be in distributing funds to charity. The donor-advised funds often are treated as tax shelters. A donor-advised fund can be a tax-savvy choice for the well-off household with the new tax regime. But the goal should be to increase support for charitable causes.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace," commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.