Tax compliance — Understanding tax issues with auctions

Auctions can be an effective way to raise funds for nonprofit organizations. But preparing for an auction involves more than fun and games. This article provides some suggestions that can help ensure nonprofits don’t run afoul of tax requirements.

Acknowledge donated items

If you hold an auction to sell merchandise or services that have been donated to your charity, you should provide written acknowledgments to the donors of auctioned items valued at $250 or more. The acknowledgment must state the name of your organization and a description — but not the value — of the donated item. It also must include:

  • A statement and good faith estimate of the value of any goods or services that your organization provided in return for the contribution, or
  • A statement that no goods or services were provided by your organization in return for the contribution.

It’s the donor’s responsibility to substantiate the value of a donated auction item.

Certain rules for certain gifts

Donors of services (for example, legal, beauty or personal chef services) may be surprised to learn that their donations of services aren’t tax-deductible as contributions. Alert them to this in advance. The same goes for the donation of the use of a vacation home or use of other goods, equipment and facilities.

Consider notifying donors of property, such as artwork or fine jewelry, that tax laws generally limit their deductions to their tax basis in the property (typically what they paid for it). They can’t deduct the current fair market value (FMV) of the donated property if it’s higher.

Additionally, if you receive an item for auction with a claimed donation value of more than $5,000, and sell or otherwise dispose of the property within three years, you must file Form 8282, “Donee Information Return.” You also must provide a copy of the form to the item’s donor. Form 8282 must be filed within 125 days of the date of sale. Failure to file the form could result in penalties.

For motor vehicle donations, you must provide Form 1098-C to the donor within 30 days of sale to report the actual amount received when the vehicle is sold. The donor’s charitable deduction is limited to the amount sold.

Provide FMV estimate

A contribution made by a donor who receives substantial goods and services in exchange (such as the item won in the auction) is known as a quid pro quo contribution. Under IRS rules, you must provide a written disclosure statement of the FMV of the goods or services received to a donor who makes a payment of more than $75 that’s partly a contribution and partly for those items. These disclosures are often required for charitable auction bids exceeding $75.

So, it’s a wise practice to provide bidders with a good faith estimate of the FMV of each available item in the auction catalog or in the descriptions posted at the time of bidding. Include language notifying bidders that only the amount paid in excess of the FMV may be deductible as a charitable donation. This will satisfy the written disclosure requirements.

Failure to provide the written disclosures can result in penalties of $10 per contribution, not to exceed $5,000 per auction. You can avoid the penalty if you can show your failure was due to “reasonable cause.”

Collect sales tax on sold items

Remember that your organization’s exemption from paying sales tax when purchasing items isn’t an exemption from collecting sales tax when selling items. Charitable auctions are basically sales, and most states require nonprofits to collect sales tax on items sold.

If your organization doesn’t normally engage in merchandise sales, you may need to register with your state to collect sales tax. Some states allow exemptions for “occasional sales,” though. Research the state and local sales tax implications before you hold your event to ensure compliance. Your CPA can help.

Keys to success

Failure to comply with tax laws can undo all your organization’s hard work. Applying the best practices presented in this article will help your organization fulfill its tax obligations and help your auction winners to fulfill theirs.