Taking Tax Write-offs for Good Deeds

Although you cannot deduct the value of the time and effort you expend on behalf of charity, you can still salvage some tax breaks. Specifically, the tax law allows you to write off certain out-of-pocket expenses you incurred while performing charitable duties.

To secure the tax benefits, you must keep adequate rec­ords to back up your claims. The IRS may challenge your deductions—especially if the activity involves recreational pursuits. Here are several examples.

Vehicle expenses: If you use your personal car for charitable purposes, out-of-pocket costs such as gasoline, oil and repairs are deductible. Instead of tracking your actual expenses, you may elect to use a flat rate deduction of 14 cents per mile (plus related parking fees and tolls) for charitable-related travel in 2012.

Travel and entertainment: Other travel expenses incurred on behalf of charity—such as airfare and taxi fares—can be deducted. Also, if you host a party or dinner for fund-raising purposes, you qualify for a deduction for out-of-pocket expenses.

Telephone and fax expenses: Keep track of long-distance telephone calls, fax transmissions and cell phone charges made on behalf of a charity. These expenses are fully deductible. You may also deduct the cost of installing a separate landline in your home for this purpose.

Fund-raising events: If you attend a fund-raising event sponsored by a charity, you can deduct the cost above the fair-market value of the event. For example, if you buy two $100-a-plate tickets to a dinner for $200 and each meal is valued at $40, your deduction is limited to $120. Note: If the payment exceeds $75, you must obtain written documentation from the charitable organization.

Uniforms: You may claim a deduction for the cost of uniforms needed when you perform charitable services, as long as the clothing is not suitable for everyday wear. For example, you can generally deduct the cost of Boy Scout or Girl Scout uniforms. The cost of cleaning the uniform is also deductible as a miscellaneous expense (subject to the usual limits).

Exchange students: If you host a foreign exchange student in your home, you can deduct up to $50 per month of your expenses for each month the child attends elementary school through high school. (This $50-per-month limit has not been raised in years.) The student must be living in your home under a written agreement with a qualified charity and cannot be a relative.

Charitable conventions: You may be able to deduct the cost of attending a convention on behalf of a qualified charitable organization but only if you are an official delegate to the convention. The deductible amount includes meals and lodging while you are at the convention. However, any expenses associated with side-trips are not deductible.

These expenses can add up at the end of the year. Final advice: Remember to document all your deductible costs.