Timing of Charitable Contributions

Charitable contributions are considered to be made on the date of delivery to the charity if the donor has irrevocably parted with ownership (possession and control) of the property. The date of delivery depends on the type of property contributed, and how and when it is given to the charity.

Determining the date of delivery is important because: (1) it determines the tax year in which the gift is deductible; (2) for assets that fluctuate in value (e.g., stock), it determines the value of the gift; and (3) sometimes, it determines whether the gift is long-term or short-term property.

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Contributions made by credit card. Contributions made to a charity by credit card are deductible as a charitable contribution in the year that the charge is made.[1] In Publication 526 the IRS distinguishes charitable contributions made by credit card from the special delivery rules that apply to checks.[2]  Therefore, contributions made by credit cards that are processed by midnight on December 31 will be deductible for the tax year. Charges processed any time after that will be deductible for the new tax year.

Contributions made by check. For many years, the Internal Revenue Service has followed a so-called "delivered-when-mailed" rule to determine whether tax returns and other documents are filed with the IRS and with the Tax Court in a timely manner. In 1996, Taxpayer Bill of Rights 2 expanded the "timely-mailing-as-timely-filing" rule for tax returns and other documents to include designated private delivery services. However, since this law does not extend to charitable contributions, the "delivered-when-mailed rule" through the United States Postal Service still applies, but does not extend to private delivery services.

The "delivered-when-mailed rule" is based on Treasury Regulation 1.170A-1(b): "Time of making contribution. Ordinarily, a contribution is made at the time delivery is effected. The unconditional delivery or mailing of a check which subsequently clears in due course will constitute an effective contribution on the date of delivery or mailing."

Under the "delivered when mailed" rule, if a taxpayer mails a check to a charity, the date of mailing is deemed the date of delivery, if there are no restrictions on the time or manner of payment and the check is honored when presented.[3] There are two exceptions:

  1. Postdated checks. The date of mailing will not make any difference if the check is postdated. A postdated check is not an immediately payable contribution, but it is a promise to pay on the date shown.

  2. Checks that bounce. Generally, if a check is dishonored for insufficient funds, the gift will not be deemed to have been made when it was mailed or delivered.

A postage meter date may not be sufficient to establish the date of delivery for a gift that is mailed. In three cases the Tax Court dismissed petitions that were not timely filed, even though the petitions had been stamped on the proper date by a private postage meter.[4]

Normally, the date on a U.S. Mail postmark will conclusively establish the date of mailing. Section 7502(a)(1) states that "the date of the United States postmark stamped on the cover in which such return, claim, statement, or other document, or payment, is mailed shall be deemed the date of delivery or the date of payment, as the case may be." When a postmark conflicts with the date on a registered or certified mail receipt, the date of the receipt will control.

If a gift is mailed by the donor on December 31 but the envelope is not postmarked until January 2, the court of appeals is split on whether IRC Sec. 7502 is the exclusive method for proving mailing. The taxpayer’s testimony that the envelope was placed in the mailbox or given to a postal clerk (which usually will be considered self-serving, and rarely will be corroborated by a disinterested witness) may be sufficient.

Contributions of investment securities.  The contribution of investment securities becomes deductible when the gift securities have passed beyond the donor’s control.  For example, if stock is delivered through a broker or bank that acts as the agent of the donor in transferring the stock into the name of the donee, the gift is not deductible until the transfer is reflected on the books of the corporation.  The same result is reached when the donor sends a stock certificate to the issuing corporation or the transfer agent with instructions to reregister the stock in the name of the donee charity.

The above issues are bypassed if the donor mails to the donee organization both (1) the stock certificate, and (2) a properly executed stock power with the donor’s stock power with the donor’s signature guaranteed in accordance with the applicable stock exchange rules.  When this is done, the donor is deemed to have relinquished control, and hence made the gift, on the postmark date, and the deduction is allowable at this time.

Contributions of real property.  A gift of real estate is generally effective when the donor executes a deed to the property in accordance with local law, delivers it to the done, and the deed is recorded.


Determining in which year a donor should deduct contributions made by check. When a donor mails a check to a charity on the last day of the year, a postmark on the envelope of December 31 will be sufficient evidence that the gift was mailed on the last day of the year. Therefore, the contribution qualifies for a charitable deduction in that year.

Determining the year in which a charity should receipt gifts by check received just before or just after the calendar year end. Charities should provide receipts as of December 31 for checks that are mailed and postmarked on December 31. Without corroborated testimony by the donor that the check was mailed on December 31, a charity has no basis for providing a receipt marked December 31, if the gifts have a postmark of January 1 or later in the subsequent year.

[1] IRS Revenue Ruling 78-38. While the IRS compares credit card transactions to checks in order to differentiate them from promissory notes, the ruling states taxpayers are “…entitled to a charitable contribution deduction…in the year the charge was made….” The IRS makes the same distinction in Publication 526, as noted in the following footnote.

[2] IRS Publication 526 Charitable Contributions explains “usually, you make a contribution at the time of its unconditional delivery” and then explains that for checks this is on the date that you mail it, however, for credit cards it states that this is considered the date you make the charge.

[3] Estate of Spiegel, 12 TC 524 (1949).
[4] TC Memo 1994-180, T.C. Memo 1995-17, and 58 F.3d 468 (CA-9, 1995).

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