IT’S BETTER TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE

Since moving to the Mid-Coast area a few years ago, my wife and I have been called upon many times to help a number of local charities. We are very strong believers that it is our obligation to make our community stronger during our brief stay in this wonderful world so we choose to help where we can. We ask all readers to support their favorite local charities as they are the heartbeat of society, making a difference in all of our lives.

Two of our favorites include the Bath YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. For over 150 years, the Bath YMCA has promoted healthy living and provided youth with a safe place to grow. BBBS has been creating nurturing relationships for children facing adversity since 1904. Clearly both organizations make a positive impact on the lives of youth in our area. What they also have in common is that they are both qualified charitable organizations defined under the IRS Code.

As most already know, donations to nonprofit groups like the YMCA and BBBS are tax deductible if you itemize deductions. By definition, a donation is voluntary and is made without getting, or expecting to get, anything in return. To be deductible, a donation must also meet other strict criteria as outlined in IRS Publication 526.

Most of you reading this column have a good handle on what is deductible. Donations to the annual appeal at church, the building fund at the hospital and expenses paid when you volunteer at the museum are all examples. What you cannot deduct are the cost of raffle tickets bought to benefit a charity, the value of your volunteer time, the value of your blood given at the local blood drive, political contributions or the cost of your girl scout cookies. (…sigh)

Donations can get a little sticky when goods or services are received as a result of the contribution. Take for example, the local fundraising silent auction that you pay $1,000 to stay a beach house. If the fair value of that stay is $1,000, you have not made a contribution and no deduction is allowed. If, however, you pay $1,500 for the same stay you could be entitled to a $500 deduction.

For those who think that there is a safe amount that can be deducted be warned, the IRS has many strict rules for deducting charitable contributions. The rule that impacts most people is the requirement that individual contributions of $250 or more be backed with a written acknowledgement from the qualified organization. The acknowledgement must be in your possession before you file your return, include a description of the gift and a statement as to whether you received any goods or services as a result of the contribution.

My wife and I firmly believe that we all have an obligation to give back. Giving back is the life blood for local charities, and the tax deduction feels good too. The next time you attend a charity auction, bid high and bid often.

THE MANY FACES OF TAXABLE INCOME: GAMBLING & LOTTERY WINNINGS

Code Section 61 defines gross income, “except as otherwise provided,…gross income means all income from whatever source derived,” Regulation 1.61-1 further states that Gains from wagering transactions are included in gross income.

I suspect that most households participate in one way or another in the gambling industry. We purchase lottery tickets, enjoy an afternoon at the casino, a day at the race track, a night out for beano or maybe a little fantasy football. When we have a lucky day, how should the winnings be reported on a tax return?

Like much of the Code, gambling income and loss deductions are generally misunderstood. Gambling gain is defined as winnings less the cost of the winning bet. Gain transactions are included on line 21 on the front page of the 1040 and add to adjusted gross income. Substantiated gambling losses however, are allowed only to the extent of gambling gain transactions and must be reported on Schedule A. If you do not itemized deductions there is no benefit realized from the loss deduction.

What does the term gain “transactions” mean? I know, you all think that you learned the term in grade school; one bet is one transaction, right? Fortunately, that is not always the case. When it comes to a horse race or the lottery, a transaction is a single bet. It is not so clear when it comes to one hand of a poker game or one pull of a slot machine lever. Rather than define a transaction as a single pull of the lever, the definition is broadened to include all pulls until the winnings or tokens are cashed out for the “session”. Major relief, you can net gains and losses during a session, but what the heck is a session?

Notice 2015-21 helps gamblers better understand. The Notice takes no less than eight pages and seven examples to define a “session” of play. The abridged version is this: A session of play begins with the first wager of the day and ends with the last wager on the same type of game but not later than the end of the calendar day. Winning sessions are reported as gross income while losing sessions are deducted on schedule A.

A weekend of winning $20,000 on Saturday followed by losses of $20,000 on Sunday (two separate sessions), lead to increased gross income of the entire $20,000 with a deduction of $20,000 on Schedule A. Who cares? Well you might if you collect Social Security, receive advanced premium credits or take other deductions which might be limited when adjusted gross income exceeds certain thresholds.

Who would ever imagine that a breakeven weekend at the casino could cost thousands of dollars in income tax? Quit while you’re ahead. All the best gamblers do.

Jamie Boulette, CPA has 30 years of tax experience and is managing director of Perry, Fitts, Boulette & Fitton CPAs with offices in Bath and Oakland. He can be reached at jboulette@pfbf.com