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This Is the Year You Should Open a Donor-Advised Fund for Charity

Nov 22, 2016

If President-elect Trump and congressional Republicans succeed in their efforts to lower tax rates, the tax deduction for charitable giving could become less valuable as soon as next year.

That’s a reason you may want to accelerate some giving into this year if you know you will be itemizing deductions on your 2016 return.

But wait…don’t write those extra checks to your favorite charities just yet. A better bet might be to open an account with a donor-advised fund, such as the charitable units set up by investment firms including Fidelity, Vanguard and Schwab.

With these programs, you donate your money now and earn a tax deduction for the current year—but can wait till later to direct those dollars to the ultimate recipients. You can supersize your tax deduction for 2016 while sticking to your current schedule of annual gifts to your religious institution or other charities. You can open an account with Fidelity Charitable or Schwab Charitable with just $5,000; the minimum is $25,000 at Vanguard Charitable.

Charitable gift funds have another advantage that may be useful with the U.S. stock market hitting record levels on Monday: They make it easy to fund your giving with long-held stocks or other securities that have gone up in value—while avoiding the capital-gains tax on those investment profits.

Say you have shares that are worth $5,000 but for which you paid only $2,000 at least a year ago. If you sell the shares and use the cash to give to charity, you’ll owe tax on the $3,000 gain. If you give the shares instead, you get to deduct the same $5,000 charitable gift but make the tax bill on the gain go away. You could donate appreciated shares in a single transaction with a fund and arrange for gifts to numerous charities over time.

“There is a lot of opportunity with donor advised funds for people to manage the tax benefits of their charitable giving,” says Tim Steffen, director for financial planning at wealth management firm Baird.

David Lafferty, a partner with Wescott Financial Advisory Group, says he wouldn’t accelerate gifts solely because of the possibility of lower tax rates. But he says his firm may be close to recommending that clients sell some appreciated holdings, in which case he might recommend using them for giving before year-end.

Trump has said he wants to cut tax rates across the board. When rates are lower, a tax deduction saves you less money. For example, a $1,000 deduction saves you $330 in tax if you are in the 33% bracket but only $250 if you are in the 25% bracket. The president-elect has also proposed increasing the standard deduction (what you use when you don’t itemize) to $30,000 for joint filers, from $12,600 now. That could result in fewer people itemizing their deductions—and if you don’t itemize, there is no tax benefit associated with a charitable gift.

One thing to keep in mind when you give to one of these funds: “You can’t change your mind and take the money back,” Steffen says. You’ll also pay an administrative fee, such as 0.6% a year, on the balance in the account, in addition to investment fees. You typically can select among investment portfolios in which to have the money invested before you request grants to be sent to the ultimate recipients.

It isn’t certain that any reductions in tax rates will apply to your 2017 return. “It might take most of the year to get tax reform through Congress, and we might not end up with an effective date until 2018,” says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for Wolters Kluwer.

If you are inclined to speed up gifts into 2016 via a donor-advised fund, though, don’t wait too long. You may be able to open an account and make a deductible contribution for 2016 as late as the final week of December. That can include transferring appreciated mutual-fund shares or other securities held at the associated financial firm to its charitable arm.

But deadlines are approaching—and in some cases, already past—to donate securities held at another company. Deadlines for different types of assets are listed online by the Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard charitable funds.

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