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Chile & charitable tax deduction fairness

Chile-earthquake-02272001_USGS-location Yesterday, Feb. 27, at 3 a.m. local time an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile.

The quake was many times stronger than the one that devastated Haiti last month and most directly affected Concepción, Chile's second largest city.

Aftershocks, some substantial, are continuing in the region. Seismologists say that the tremors will continue for months. Yes, months.

But because the initial temblor's epicenter was offshore (officially, outside of Maule, Chile), and the South American country, with its long history of strong earthquakes, is more equipped to deal with these natural disasters, the loss of life reported so far, while terrible, has been much less than in Haiti.

The rest of the Pacific Basin also got lucky. The large tsunamis that were feared did not materialize.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said that although the central portion of her country was devastated by the earthquake -- estimates so far are that 2 million are homeless -- "the system is functioning. People remain calm. We're doing everything we can with all the forces we have."

And Bachelet has not requested international assistance. Still, donations are being accepted.

A quick side note: If you do give, make sure that the organization is legitimate. Disasters not only bring out the best in people, but also the worst. Con artists often appear before authentic nonprofits.

So if you want to give, investigate the group to which you are considering donating and, if it checks out, write the check.

Permanent charitable gift timing needed: The Chilean disaster hit just a day before today's Feb. 28 deadline for U.S. taxpayers to donate to Haitian earthquake efforts if they want to deduct those gifts on 2009 tax returns.

Because Chile seems to have the situation under control, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate Congressional effort to include donations to Chilean earthquake relief in the extended donation period.

But you never know. Capitol Hill certainly likes to insert itself into as many things as possible. So we'll have to see Monday if any Representative or Senator drops a Chile earthquake donation bill into the hopper and how quickly such legislation might move.

What Congress really needs to do is permanently revise the Internal Revenue Code when it comes to deductible donations, instead of acting on a disaster-by-disaster basis.

Lawmakers should make some basic, easy to implement and more fair changes to charitable gifts that can help both taxpayers and, more importantly, folks who need such help.

I have three suggestions as to how they can do just that.

1. Donate by April 15 instead of Dec. 31.
First, permanently shift the time frame for deductions. Allow taxpayers to deduct all qualified charitable gifts made by April 15 on their returns for the previous tax year.

This would work the same way as IRA contributions. The IRS has been dealing with those for years, so simply adapting that system to donations shouldn't be a problem.

And as is the case with the temporary Haiti donation change, the tax year deduction choice would be optional. If a taxpayer wants to hold off claiming the donations until the next filing, that's fine.

2. Extend deductions to standard filers.
Second, allow taxpayers who claim the standard deduction to add at least some of their contributions to that amount.

This is already in place for property taxes and the new vehicle sale tax write-offs. Just use the newly created Schedule L to record qualified donations, too.

C'mon, Congress. Have a real heart. Just because the philanthropic community isn't donating to your campaign funds the way the real estate industry, which is a big supporter of the property tax deduction, is doesn't mean that the tax break for donors isn't just as valuable.

If you're really worried about potential deficit costs, simply cap the contributions add on, again as is done with the property taxes. That $500 for single filers and $1,000 for married couples filing jointly would help a lot of generous taxpayers save a bit at filing time.

3. Increase the mileage deduction.
Third, change the pitiful charitable mileage deduction amount. Right now someone who uses a vehicle to help out a charity can only write off qualified miles at 14 cents each.

Make that amount the same as the rate allowed for moving and medical expenses. That's 24 cents on 2009 returns; 16.5 cents on 2010 taxes.

Again, the system is already in place. The mileage rates are adjusted each fall. Just make them apply to charitable driving as well as the other types of travel.

Quick, easy and fair: These three changes wouldn't take much effort. One bill could easily incorporate them all.

Lawmakers could make the effective date retroactive (they love to do that anyway) to Jan. 1, 2010. And then, god forbid, should some other catastrophe occur on April 14, we'd be set. No worrying about changing the law and slowing down the filing process that's well under way.

I've already sent an e-mail to my Senators and Representative suggesting these changes. If you agree, let your lawmakers know, too. Maybe we can help make at least this small positive change to our tax code and help others and ourselves out at the same time.

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The Tax Club

This is a great article. The earthquake in Chile cause so much damage and they need assistance asap. Everyone should chip in and help. As this article states by chipping in and donating some money you will be able to get a deduction on taxes. By helping others you can help yourselves. Now is the time to consider this with tax season approaching. Do the right thing and lend a helping hand to those in need.

Reagan

I like using http://www.congress.org/ for sending my representatives my comments.

You fill in your zip and +4 if necessary write your comments in the form provided and submit.

Capwiz, the company behind the service then uses their relationship with congress to e-mail your message.

Every time I've used the service my message has no problems going through and I get a reply usually within a few days.

Another good service is http://www.fax2congress.com/

You can send a fax to your state delegation, the entire senate, all of the house, or all 535 offices.

Sometimes an office, and I speak from personal experience views a fax differently than an e-mail, though now days this is a minority view as most offices are run by 20 somethings who really understand the internet and technology.

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