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IRS cracks down on charity cheats

The tax man is hoping to rub out the practice of overexaggerating charitable contributions. Does your return reflect that?

By David Ellis, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As a group, Americans are pretty philanthropic, but we also love to overstate our generosity. Especially when it comes time to filling out our annual tax return.

But, starting this year, the IRS is making that a whole lot tougher to do. Last summer, the tax man announced a new set of requirements about how Americans report their cash and household item donations in an effort to crack down on taxpayer abuse.


"This is where people fudge the most," said Cindy Hockenberry, a tax information analyst with the National Association of Tax Professionals. "The IRS knows that people do that, that is why they put in these strict rules...they know this is an area where there is a lot of play."

The new rules, which affect contributions made after Aug. 17 last year, are part of the larger IRS effort to narrow the $290 billion annual tax gap - the difference between what taxpayers should have paid and what they actually pay.

Here's a look at the changes taking effect this year:

You'd better get a receipt

For starters, cash donations can no longer be included on your return without some sort of documentation.

In the past, taxpayers only had to provide proof of their donation only if they gave over $250. If you donated less than that, the tax laws were so loose that a simple note or a personal bank register would suffice.

This year, that threshold has been eliminated, said Jim Van Houten, a senior manager at the West Coast-based accounting firm Moss Adams. That means you better get a receipt for just about everything.

From now on, that $10 bill you slipped into the collection basket at your house of worship or the $500 check you wrote to the Salvation Army requires a receipt from the charity or a copy of your canceled check if you plan to include it on your tax return.

Watch those non-cash items

And expect the IRS to take a close look at your return if you donated a non-cash household item such as the discards from your designer wardrobe, an old laptop or that leather chaise-lounge that is sitting in your garage.

Under the old tax law, rules about donating household items were equally lax, allowing taxpayers, in some instances, to drop off their clothing to a charitable organization no matter their condition and dictate the value themselves. Only if an item was worth over $5,000 was a taxpayer required to get proof of its value from a professional appraiser.

One New York taxpayer recently took it so far as to claim she donated close to $50,000 worth of clothing to charity. After a tax court ruled that the clothes were only worth about $9,000, the taxpayer got hit with a fine.

Under new law, if you donate a household item to charity, it must be in good condition or better. And if the item is not exactly in tip-top shape, but worth more than $500, the new law requires that you get it professionally appraised.

Of course, getting a receipt from the charity is required. Some accounting professionals even recommend taking pictures of your donated goods just in case the IRS decides to take a closer look at your contributions.

"The moral of the whole story is don't take deductions unless you can prove it," said Hockenberry.

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