Tax deductions: What is your clothing donation valued at?
Published 3/14/08 (Modified 6/17/11)
When I was little I always wondered why my parents bothered to rummage through our closets, cabinets, shoe racks, and sock drawers for assorted clothing every few years. I would see my mom folding and stacking old and outdated clothes that I never wore anymore into black garbage bags and deliver them to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. It wasn't until I started working and earning income that I finally realized why it made sense to take the time to compile old apparel and send them to local charities. Other than the usual altruistic factors, the biggest reason is to take full advantage of the IRS itemized charitable tax deduction for qualified clothing donations.
Not that we all shouldn't be donating to charities out of the kindness of our hearts, but Uncle Sam has provided us an attractive incentive in the form of tax breaks for charitable contributions. Most people are keenly aware that they get a tax deductible write off when they tithe or donate money to a charitable organization like their local church. But some seem to forget that the deduction also applies to noncash donations like clothing, shoes, and furniture, so long as they are in reasonably good condition. Of course, like with all good perks there are ground rules in place to prevent abusive taxpayers from going crazy and taking unfair liberty with the charitable deduction. Without these regulations, you would probably have people assigning all sorts of outrageous valuations on the items they donate ($25 for a used T-shirt complete with holes, for example).
The Charitable Tax Deduction Is Useful Only If You Itemize
The calculation of one's annual tax return usually entails adding up all the income and gains for the year, and then deducting expenses and losses to come up with the final taxable income balance. The IRS provides two primary deduction methods - the simpler standard deduction, which is a flat set amount, and the itemized method, which requires the taxpayer to manually report each individual deduction that he or she qualifies for. The charitable deduction is one of many that falls in the itemized category. The taxpayer has to choose whether to take the standard deduction or to itemize. However, until the total sum of all itemized deductions exceed the standard, it doesn't make sense to itemize. Unless you already carry a hefty home mortgage with itemizable mortgage interest, it probably makes more sense to itemize every other year, and bulk up your donations in those years. When you itemize, charitable contributions should be a key part of your tax reduction plan.
Five Steps To Donating Your Clothes And Getting That Tax Deduction, Without Being Audited
When donating clothes for the tax deduction, the worst thing you can do is to drastically overestimate the donated clothing value and trigger an alarm bell. Triggering a red flag will send the IRS man running to your home to request receipts and proof of your donation. Because charitable donation is one of those tax items frequently abused by taxpayers, the IRS closely scrutinizes such claims. Thus you want to make sure you go by the book:
1) Gather All Your Unwanted Clothes and Organize Them - Most usable articles of clothing, including shirts, jackets, coats, shoes, dresses, socks, neckties, suits, and even underwear may be donated to local thrift shops and charitable institutions. For underwear and socks however, it's important to be aware that the IRS now requires all articles of donated used clothing to be in good used condition or better. It's probably a better idea to avoid worn socks and underwear. While it's true what they say - that beggars can't be choosers, we should still try to respect the dignity of those individuals receiving them. If you want to donate those particular items, I suggest buying a new cheap pair for donation.
2) Make A Detailed Record Of Your Donated Items - While it is likely no questions of your donation will ever arise, it is still important to keep a detailed list of your donation in case questions arise or you get audited on the matter. Try to keep a spreadsheet chart or list of all articles donated, recording information such as the number of clothing articles, the estimated dates of purchase, condition at the time of donation, the assessed fair market value of each item, and perhaps even substantiation of how you calculated and arrived at the particular valuation. Some people also recommend taking digital photographs of each item. I recommend taking photos, especially for those items whose valuation may be a bit high and out of the norm.
3) Assign An Appropriate Fair Market Value For Each Clothing Item - The donation valuation process is generally subjective and you are responsible for assigning the proper value for your charitable donations. There is no exact IRS formula or chart as the agency relies on subjective approximations. However, if you wish to donate more than a total of $500 worth of clothing or other goods to charities, you must complete Section A of Form 8283 Non Cash Charitable Contributions, and include it with your federal tax return. A formal donation appraisal by a qualified appraiser is not needed unless you are making a contribution of non-cash property worth more than $5,000. A qualified appraiser is someone authorized to complete Part III, Declaration of Appraiser, of Section B, which must also be included with the tax return in that event.
The IRS permits taxpayers to only deduct the fair market value of the donated clothing and household good. Fair market value is the reasonable price that an ordinary buyer would pay for the item in a regular market situation such as at a flea market, on eBay, or at a thrift shop. Fair market value is not the original purchase cost but the second hand used price that could be obtained in an otherwise efficient market.
There are various used clothing charts and valuation tables on the internet to help determine worth. Both The Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries provide assorted valuation guides on their web sites, which may be used as templates for approximating fair market value. You should keep in mind that the donated value is frequently much less than the original purchase price. If you want additional clarification, please take at look at the official IRS publications on the subject:
- Publication 561, Determining the Value of Donated Property - Useful if you want to examine a few valuation scenarios.
- Publication 526, Charitable Contributions - Addresses the entire subject of charitable donations and provides a useful background.
4) Deliver Your Donated Clothing To The Charity - Most people donate clothing and other household products through charitable organizations such as their local church, or through Goodwill and the Salvation Army. I recommend visiting their websites to locate one of their many thrift shop locations nationwide where you can bring your bags of donated clothing to. There is no need to make a reservation or appointment. Just deliver your bags of clothing and your categorized list of items. Be sure you have properly compiled your list of donation items before bringing the items to the site. Don't expect the charity to sort the items and do the work for you on the spot.
Usually, the way it works is you drop off your items at the donation site and a staff member provides you with a receipt upon request. Although you are not obligated to obtain a written receipt from the charity if the total value of the donated clothing is under $250, you should still always request one for record keeping purposes. Sometimes, but not always, they'll make a note on the receipt for you about exactly what was dropped off, but the description is usually very general - such as "3 bags of clothing". Other times, they will simply hand you a blank receipt for you to fill out.
Some charitable thrift shop centers allow you to mail your clothing donations in, or even provide large clothing donation boxes where you can leave your clothes. Just be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the center can send you a receipt later. Shipping costs are tax deductible as well.
5) Claim the Value Of Your Clothing Donation As A Charitable Deduction On Your Tax Return - Since you went through all the trouble of donating your used clothing, be sure to take the appropriate deduction on your tax return when you file. To claim the charitable tax deduction, you will need to report the value of your donated clothes on Schedule A of Form 1040 as an itemized deduction. The total value of your charitable deductions cannot be more than 50 percent of your adjusted gross income in any single year. However, donations exceeding the 50 percent limit can be carried forward to future years.
As with most things in life, I recommend that you plan ahead before making large clothing donations. If you don't usually carry significant itemizable expenses such as home mortgage interest and taxes, you should save up your donations until you have a sizable amount before making the contribution. While charitable giving is always a worthy cause, it doesn't mean you shouldn't try to fully maximize the tax advantages the government provides.