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Tow away a tax break: Donate a car to get a deduction

By Suzanne Monson

To avoid the hassle of selling or towing their lifeless 1989 Ford Tempo last year — and to earn a tax deduction for their effort — Sean and Ashley Snow followed a radio commercial's advice, and donated their car "running or not" to a charity.

Now, the government is trying to make sure donors such as the Mountlake Terrace couple don't get taken for a ride.

In 2000, more than 733,000 Americans donated cars to more than 300 charities and cut their tax bills by about $654 million.

At least 14,000 vehicles were donated to 18 charities in Washington state last year. While the state does not track exact figures from these transactions, the largest vehicles-to-charity auctioneer in the area estimates the number of donated vehicles has grown by at least 40 percent over the past three years.

"The whole vehicle-donation phenomenon is up significantly because it's an innovative way for charities to raise funds," says Rebecca Sherrell, charities program manager for the Washington Secretary of State Office.

But tax specialists and government officials believe too many taxpayers are unclear about how car donations really work — and what it means to their pocketbook and to their chosen charities. To identify steps taxpayers should take when donating vehicles to charities — and look for cases where charities and their fund-raisers aren't following laws and regulations — Cathleen Berrick, an acting director with the Homeland Security and Justice Department, is preparing a report to be released in September for Congress.

Committee testimony she provided in April points out a variety of misleading holes in the system. For example, some donors are lured by advertisements that overinflate a donor's sense of their vehicle's worth. That means the donor may not get the tax deduction they hope for — or that they may file a tax return with bad figures.

Though "there is evidence that not all fund-raisers are above-board," Berrick believes charities "are trying to do the right thing: raise money for their cause."

And it does raise money.

In California, the only state that tracks such contributions, charities that used fund-raising companies to assist them with vehicle contributions and sales made $11.3 million in 2000, according to Berrick.

Some donors, however, may be surprised to learn their vehicle doesn't provide much bang for their donation buck. "It's elusive to me why people don't ask more questions," Sherrell says. "If I'm a donor, I want to know."

Here's how these programs often work:

• Most charities pay a donation-processing center to handle advertising and paperwork.

• Another company takes care of vehicle pickup, cleanup and repair and sale. When non-running cars are involved, this may include breaking it down for parts.

• Once in condition for resale, the vehicles are auctioned off.

• The company deducts its costs from the proceeds — and divides the remaining balance with the charity and donation-processing center. Depending on the arrangement, charities receive 20 percent to 80 percent of the balance.

It shouldn't bother donors to learn that many legitimate, tax-exempt 501(c)(3)-registered charities contract with other companies, says Bert Colley, president of the Washington Council of the Blind, considered one of the pioneers in cars-for-charity in this region.

Most charitable groups don't have the overhead to run this kind of program, he explains.

"We're an all-volunteer program," Colley says. "We'd have to purchase a fleet of a dozen trucks, run maintenance, employ people, pay out all the Labor and Industry things you have to when you have a business. That would probably knock it down to 12 to 13 percent actual net for us."

Instead, he says, the council receives about 22 percent of the vehicle's sale price. The money supports scholarships, crisis programs and education support. Since starting its program in 1998, the council has gone from a nonprofit group that collected $75,000 in donations to one that made $270,000 last year. Colley calls the 3,600 vehicles it collected in 2002 the council's "best year ever."

To Tom Williamson of Renton, a little money to a charity is better than none at all. That's why he has donated two vehicles to Washington Council of the Blind. "I knew some of the work they did, saw the ads in the newspaper, and I actually did call to see if they were who they said they were," Williamson says. "They made it painless. In both cases, I called the number. They asked me a few questions about the cars — its brand, age, condition — and they sent me a packet in the mail within five days.

"They gave me information on how to calculate the fair market for the tax deduction," Williamson says. "But honestly, I just wanted them to be moved."

In Lake Forest Park, Cindy Wisdom felt compelled to do a little more research when she and husband Mark opted to donate their running Plymouth Horizon sedan about 10 years ago.

When she called toll-free numbers listed in newspaper advertisements, however, Wisdom says she felt people answering her calls "tap-danced" around her questions.

"I found out later some of them were not nonprofit and others didn't disclose that they only got a very small percentage" of her contribution, Wisdom says.

That's why the couple eventually donated their vehicle directly to Salvation Army, which gave it to a needy family.

"I really don't like the fund-raising part of the system because I don't think the organization has control over who fund-raises for them," Wisdom says. "But as long as they can sell it directly or use it in some capacity for their programs or clients, I'm fine with it."

That sentiment, says tax attorney Alisa George of the Seattle office of Dorsey & Whitney, is one echoed by many well-intentioned taxpayers. But too many get caught up in "the false assumption that donating to a charity will give you a better value" for the vehicle, she says.

When ads say taxpayers can deduct "to the maximum extent allowed by law or using (Kelley) Blue Book value, a lot of people are led to believe they can use something other than fair-market value," says Alisa George.

At the Secretary of State's Office, Sherrell sees some donors making the same mistake.

"They might say you'll get the highest Blue Book value, but that's not always the case," Sherrell says.

Fair market value takes into account not only the year, model and mileage of the vehicle, says IRS spokeswoman Shawn George (no relation to Alisa George), but demands in the local market and the vehicle's condition.

As a result, the IRS says, the fair-market value of a donor's car may be substantially different from the average price listed in an established used-car guide.

"Another place that some groups are not forthcoming," says Alisa George, "is if your vehicle is worth more than $5,000. Be cautious: if it's worth more than that and you try to write it off on your taxes, you're going to get contacted by the IRS."

Instead, she explains, donors will need to fill out a special form and pay for an appraisal "that can cost a few hundred dollars."

As long as charities and donors follow the rules, says Sherrell, vehicle donations to charities can be a good thing for both.

"In some ways," she says, "this is no different than giving money to a charity. Unfortunately, vehicle donation is going to require more of an effort by the donor."


Source: Seattle Times - Oct 28 7:19 PM - web site:


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Consumer Edition, January-June 2004

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(Kelley Blue Book Used Car Guide. Consumer Edition, Vol 12, January-June, 2004)

An essential resource for anyone looking to buy, sell, or trade in a used car, this portable volume provides the general public with information that was originally restricted to the automotive industry: original list prices, vehicle identification numbers (VINs), and trade-in, private-party, and retail values for vehicles, according to condition. First published in 1926 to help auto dealers, financial institutions, and others in the trade, the Kelley Blue Book has been available to consumers since 1993. This edition covers model years 1989 to 2003. Also included are values for additional options and equipment, a table of acceptable mileage ranges by year, and tips on buying a used car.

Blue Book Consumer Edition January-June 2004 - For only $9.95! Includes values for used cars, trucks and vans covering model years 1988 to 2002. The Consumer Edition includes three values:

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