WSJ Article

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GETTING PERSONAL: IRA Charitable Rollover Comes With Risks

DECEMBER 29, 2009, 2:44 P.M. ET
   By Shelly Banjo 
   A DOW JONES NEWSWIRES COLUMN 

NEW YORK (Dow Jones)–Donors who have tapped their individual retirement accounts for charitable donations under a popular temporary tax break may be in for a surprise come tax season.

In some states, distributions from a charitable IRA rollover may not be tax-free, as many charities have indicated in their promotional materials.

While these distributions escape federal taxes, they may be subject to income tax by states that don’t allow charitable deductions and count IRA distributions as taxable income. Other states are facing delays in incorporating federal tax rules into state law.

In New Jersey, where taxpayers with an income between $500,000 and $1 million face a 10.25% rate, donors may pay more than $10,000 in state taxes for a $100,000 charitable IRA rollover. Donors who don’t factor in extra income from an IRA distribution may mistakenly be bumped into a higher tax bracket.

Pushing for Congress to extend the IRA-giving provision, financial advisers and charities laud the extra tax break for generating an extra $140 million for charity since it was enacted in 2006.

Taxpayers ages 70 1/2 and older are typically required to make annual distributions from their retirement accounts (though distributions for 2009 were suspended). The distributions are included in their federal adjusted gross income and are taxed as such. The charitable IRA rollover lets taxpayers make donations directly to charitable organizations from their IRAs without counting them as income and paying federal taxes on them.

State taxes are a different story, says Eric Abramson, an estate and charitable planning adviser in Paramus, N.J.

“There can be a cost on the state income-tax level, and for a large gift it could mean a substantial income-tax hit. It’s important to bring this to the client’s attention and make sure the cost is quantified and handled appropriately,” he says.

Overlooking state taxes could have wider implications for national charities such as the American Red Cross or United Way, where donations are already suffering from the strained economy.

“The last thing nonprofits need is to face the wrath of an angry donor who wasn’t informed,” says Jonathan Gudema, a planned giving consultant with Changing Our World Inc., a fund-raising and philanthropy consulting firm.

Many organizations, including The College of New Jersey and Overlook Hospital Foundation in Summit, N.J., state clearly in marketing materials that benefits apply only at the federal level.

“We find many of our donors are willing to pay the small price that this might increase their income taxes to reduce the assets held in a retirement plan,” says Kenneth Cole, senior director at Overlook. “In some cases, IRA assets are the only funds they have to make a charitable gift.”

Other charities have steered clear of handing out financial advice altogether.

“Legally and ethically we can’t put ourselves in the position to dispense financial advice,” says Ted Mills, associate director of gift planning at Princeton University. “We tell our donors twice or even three times to review any important decisions with financial advisers.”

(Shelly Banjo is a Practice Management and Getting Personal columnist who writes about wealth management and philanthropy; she covers topics including the business of financial advisers, investment strategies and charitable giving. She can be reached at 212-416-2242 or by email at shelly.banjo@dowjones.com.)

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