Lifetime vs. Testamentary Contributions



Many taxpayers with charitable intentions struggle with the decision of whether to donate property to charity during their lifetimes or to make a charitable bequest in their wills that will be fulfilled from property included in their estates (testamentary bequests). While taxpayers frequently base their choice between lifetime charitable gifts and testamentary bequests on nontax considerations, they need to be aware of the tax implications of their decision.

For income tax purposes, the deduction for charitable contributions is limited to a percentage of adjusted gross income (AGI), depending on the type of charity and the type of property donated. In contrast, no percentage limitation exists on the amount of charitable donations that may be deducted from the gross estate (as long as the donated property is included in the gross estate). However, in most instances a charitable gift during lifetime will provide a double tax benefit. The donation produces an income tax deduction at the time of the gift, plus the donated property and any future income and appreciation from the property are fully excluded from the donor's gross estate. The cost of the double benefit is giving up the property and all future income while the donor is still living.

Example: Greater tax benefits by lifetime giving

Tom, who is in the top tax bracket, plans on leaving $1 million to a qualifying charity. If he makes a $1 million testamentary bequest, this could save his estate up to $400,000 ($1,000,000 * an assumed marginal federal estate tax rate of 40%). If Tom makes a current gift, this will save him up to $396,000 in federal income taxes ($1,000,000 * 39.6% for 2014). In addition, if he has a taxable estate, it could also save another $241,600 [($1,000,000 - $396,000) * 40%] based on his estate being reduced by the net amount of $604,000, the difference between the value of the donated property and income taxes he saved. Thus, the total income and estate tax savings from making a current gift is $637,600 ($396,000 + $241,600).

The donor generally must transfer his or her entire interest in the contributed property for the gift to qualify for the charitable donation income tax deduction. Transfers of less than the donor's entire interest in the property (i.e., split-interest gifts) qualify for the deduction only if they meet certain criteria.

A charitable bequest has the obvious advantage of allowing the donor full use of the property until death. However, many lifetime gifts can be structured in a manner that allows the donor to continue to use the property or receive its income for life. In these instances, the donor gets the double tax benefit associated with lifetime contributions while retaining some benefit from the property until his or her death.

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