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hourglass in sand
Here on the GFLF blog we talk a lot about the transfer of property made at the time of death through estate planning tools like a will, disposition of personal property document, or a trust. Everyone needs an estate plan to most effectively and seamlessly transfer real property (think land and real estate) and personal property (think jewelry, art, all of your “stuff”) to the people and charities you care most about. These are all called testamentary gifts. (Think “last will and testament” if that makes it easy to remember.)
As you probably know all too well, you can also make gifts to other people during your lifetime. These are called inter vivos gifts if you want to be lawyerly with it. This one’s easier to think about because you’ve been giving gifts for holidays, birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries regularly. You can also make gifts while living of cash, real estate, land, stocks/bonds, and other non-cash assets to charitable organizations.
One specific type of inter vivos gift doubles down on the Latin–it’s called a gift causa mortis. This type of gift is made by the donor while they’re alive in the event of impending death. Causa mortis in Latin translates to “because of death.” Sometimes this type of gift is referred to as a deathbed gift. The most common kind of gifts causa mortis tend to be small, valuable and/or meaningful gifts like a wedding ring.
To make this more salient, consider the scenario where Abe was in a severe accident and is aware that he is going to pass soon. Abe turns to his son Bob, who rushed him to the ER, and tells him that he wants him to have his watch. He takes it and gives it to his son Bob and then gets rushed into surgery. This is a simple example of a gift causa mortis.
Now, with out amateur Latin lesson complete, let’s dive into the elements of the rules related to gifts causa mortis.
woman blowing on a dandelion

Elements of Gifts Causa Mortis

A valid inter vivos gift involves:

  1. intent by the donor facing imminent to donate;
  2. delivery of the gift; and
  3. acceptance by the donor.

Delivery of the Gift

The gift must be delivered to the recipient. That’s easy if it’s something handheld like jewelry that you’re wearing, but what about anything that the donor doesn’t have on them personally? So long as the “delivery” is sufficiently symbolic, that will suffice if physical delivery at the time of the gifts is impractical.

woman giving white rose

Another Hypothetical

Let’s say a donor wanted to make a gift causa mortis of an antique piece of furniture to their niece. At the time the donor was residing in a hospice facility and very clearly toward the very end of her terminal illness. It would be impractical for the law to expect the dying donor to physical deliver the furniture to her niece. As long as the donor gave the niece a symbolic representation of the gift, such as writing out the details of the furniture’s location and details in the presence of a witness, it would likely be found valid upon the donor’s passing.

Another example that applies arose out of a case where a donor’s delivery was found to be valid where she signed the back of her car’s certificate of title to gift the automobile to her brother.

Can I Get a Witness?

To avoid post-mortem litigation by other heirs-at-law or the decedent’s estate’s executor, it’s preferable if the delivery of the gift is witnessed by a third party who can attest to the validity of the gift. Additionally, if there is an option for a piece of writing to be made out detailing the gifts and signed in the presence of a third party, that’s even better.

Revocable  & Conditional

Gifts causa mortis are revocable, which means that the donor (the gift giver) can revoke the gift at any time (while still alive). This revocation can be completed unilaterally, with only the donor. This is different than an inter-vivos gift, which when completed, is completely irrevocable.
person giving wedding bands
Gifts causa mortis are also conditional on the donor’s death, meaning the gift giver actually has to perish before the donee’s ownership is valid.
Taking it back to our story with Abe and his son Bob: if Abe gave his watch to Bob before surgery with the imminent expectation of dying soon, but ended up living through the surgery, the gift is no longer valid and automatically revoked. Of course, Abe could choose to make an inter-vivos gift to Bob if he decided to do so.
Additionally, if the recipient dies before the donor, then the gift is revoked and the beneficiary’s estate has no claim to the property.

Imminent Death

tombstone close-up
For a valid gift causa mortis, the donor has to die imminently…what constitutes “imminent death?” This has been debated in different cases. What’s clear is the gift giver doesn’t have to die immediately, like seconds after the gift is given. But, the donor must pass away from the danger or condition that was present at the giving of the gift. Plus, it doesn’t “count” if the donor has a fear that they might die at some vague point in the future.
Intervening Recovery
Additionally, there must be no intervening recovery between the gift and death.
Back to our hypothetical: let’s say Abe goes into surgery and survives from the injuries relating to his accident. At this point the gift of the watch is invalid. Abe may unfortunately go on and pass away from a different condition a few months later, but the previous gift causa mortis of the watch is not suddenly valid just because Abe eventually died.

What’s the Difference Between Gifts Causa Mortis and Testamentary Gifts?

Typically gifts causa mortis are informally made in the moment, are not planned to the same extent or formally written out like testamentary gifts. In the majority of states, gifts causa mortis are immediately transferred to the recipient’s ownership after death, whereas gifts made through a will or testamentary trust transfer ownership after the probate process is complete. Additionally, gifts causa mortis can only be made of personal property, not real property like your house or farmland.

How do Gifts Causa Mortis Fit into Taxes?

Similar to testamentary gifts, gifts causa mortis are taxed under federal estate tax law. The policy behind this is because the gifts aren’t complete until the donor’s passing. (Note well that the federal estate tax also applies to general inter vivos gifts made within three years of death. This means the value of such gifts is included in the estate in order to calculate the estate taxes.) It’s also worth noting that the federal estate tax applies to so few people now after the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, so you don’t really to be concerned about this!
dying bouquet of flowers

Final Words on Gifts  Causa Mortis

Gifts Causa Mortis or not, there is no substitute for an airtight, updated estate plan. If you have such a plan in place, there’s no need to try and meet all the elements and intricacies of gifts causa mortis.

None of us know when our time will come, and we may not have the opportunity to give away our prized possessions via causa mortis right before death. But, we can know that estate plans never expire and can give you peace of mind that your property will be pass to the people you intend without legal contest (which can arise from gifts of causa mortis).

No questions are dumb questions when it comes to the complex world of property and estates. Don’t hesitate to contact GFLF or schedule a free consult to get your estate planning needs and goals in order.

planned gift pink bow

A planned gift is literally what is sounds like. Sort of. The term refers to the process of creating a charitable bequest now that will take effect later. In other words, during your lifetime you plan for a gift that will be given a future date—usually at or upon your death. A planned gift is best accomplished as part of an overall estate plan and it is usually delivered through a will or trust.

While you can make provisions to give a specific dollar amount, there are many different types of planned gifts. You can make a planned gift of real estate, life insurance, and retirement plans, or tangible property (such as artwork). You can also remember organizations with planned gifts of charitable remainder annuity trusts (CRATs), charitable remainder unitrusts (CRUTs), Net Income with Makeup Charitable Remainder Unitrusts (NIMCRUTs), FlipCRUTs.

For now, let’s go over exactly what planned giving is; the benefits of planned giving; the kinds of charities you need to consider when making a planned gift; and the kinds of gifts that qualify for a tax deduction.

Who gives? Donors and benefactors

In July 2018, Warren Buffet donated about $3.4 billion to five charities, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—itself headed by the country’s most generous philanthropic couple who gave it $4.8 billion. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $1 billion to their charitable foundation.

It’s fun to read about the super-rich and their bountiful bequests, but you don’t have to be a modern-day Rockefeller or a member of the one percent to donate to charity or create a planned gift. Indeed, ordinary people with ordinary means can bequeath gifts that make an extraordinary difference.

In 2016, a legal secretary in Brooklyn, New York, who had worked at the same law firm for 67 years, bequeathed $8.2 million to, among others, New York City’s Henry Street Settlement and Hunter College to help disadvantaged students. Sylvia Bloom, who worked until she was 96 years old, saved her fortune through frugal living and savvy investing.

People make planned gifts for any number of reasons:

  • Streamline estate planning and closing;
  • Make a meaningful contribution to a cause or organization that reflects their beliefs and values;
  • Create a legacy that will have lasting impact into the future;
  • Gain income and tax benefits.

There are three types of planned gifts:

  • Outright gifts that use assets instead of cash;
  • Gifts that return income or other financial benefits to you in return for a contribution;
  • Gifts payable upon your death.

Who receives? Planned giving beneficiaries

Organizations love planned gifts. After what are known as “major gifts”—the six-figure endowment, the priceless Old Master painting, the stretch of valuable coastline—planned giving makes up the largest chunk of donations a nonprofit receives. Planned giving helps nonprofits weather fluctuations in other kinds of charitable giving and income, such as yearly donations and gift shop sales. It can alleviate the possibility of dipping into an endowment or cutting back on services and programs. Planned giving is also a way to develop and sustain relationships with donors — and in an increasingly competitive giving environment, nonprofits can’t afford to ignore planned giving programs. Even though organizations don’t immediately receive a planned gift, it is worth the wait.

The reality is that nonprofits can no longer simply ask donors to pony up with cash by writing a check. Donors expect and often demand an array of choices when it comes to helping their favorite nonprofits. Many if not most nonprofits have programs in place to accept planned gifts. But if you’re interested in donating an asset your favorite nonprofit isn’t accustomed to accepting, your best bet is to connect it with an experienced nonprofit attorney to make your gift a reality.

Not all nonprofits are the same when it comes to giving

When we talk about “charitable giving,” it is usually when referring to a particular kind of nonprofit organization. Specifically, organizations formed under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service tax code.(Click to the IRS website to check if a possible beneficiary is a qualified 501(c)(3).) A 501(c)(3) can come in many different forms: foundations, charities, churches, community organizations, schools. They all have one thing in common in that they are formed to benefit the general public, not individuals, not for the mutual benefit of their members (such as homeowners associations, and not for political coalitions).

Be aware, however, that not every nonprofit is a 501(c)(3) organization. There are actually 29 types of nonprofits in the U.S. federal tax code, but when it comes to planned giving you can only take a tax deduction if you donate to one that the IRS has conferred 501(c)(3) status. Contributions to non-501(c)(3) groups, charities, and organizations can be valuable to recipients and make you feel good as well. It’s just that the federal government is not going to give you a tax break for your donation. Knowing what you can and can’t claim helps you maximize the potential tax savings that the charitable tax deduction to a 501(c)(3) offers.

Before we discuss what kinds of giving qualify for a tax deduction, here are some that don’t qualify:

Promises and pledges

Let’s say you made a charitable pledge of $150 to a 501(c)(3), but only gave $50 that particular tax year. You can only deduct from your taxes the $50 that you actually donated that year. Once you donate rest of the pledge (the remaining $100) you can deduct that amount for the tax year in which this occurred.

Political support

While it is important to be involved in the democratic process, monetary support is not considered charitable giving. Monies given to political candidates, campaigns, parties, and political action committees (PACs), as well as money spent to host or attend fundraising events, or to purchase advertising, lawn signs, and bumper stickers are not considered charitable giving.

Fundraising and special event tickets

I’m sure you can’t count the number of times you’ve bought raffle or lottery tickets, bingo cards, and partook other kinds of games of chance. These classic and popular fundraising methods support charities and are fun to imagine winning, but you can’t claim a deduction for them.

Personal benefit gifts

The IRS considers a charitable contribution to be one-sided. This means if you receive something in return for your 501(c)(3) donation — from a tote bag to a T-shirt, from a side of beef to a three-course meal — only the amount above the fair market value of the item/service is deductible. Let’s say your neighbor’s child is selling popcorn to raise money for a scouting troop. You buy a bag of popcorn for $10 whose retail value is $6. This amounts to a $4 charitable donation. Similarly, you purchase a $75 ticket to a fundraising dinner sponsored a favorite charity. The dinner would cost you $30 at a restaurant, so your charitable deduction would be $45.

Gifts without proof

Cash placed in your church’s collection plate, dropped into the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle, and handed to a student for a cupcake at a bake sale…these are all worthy donations, but you can’t just guesstimate how much you’ve given and deduct the amount from your taxes. Of course, I believe, you gave, but the IRS demands documentary proof of all cash donations, no matter the amount in order for you to claim the deduction. Proof might be bank records such as a canceled check, a receipt from the nonprofit organization, or a pay stub if the donation was made through a payroll deduction. For single cash donations of more than $250, the IRS requires a statement from the organization.

Gifts to individuals

I’ve seen many successful crowdfunding campaigns to support any number of good causes. Let’s say a friend is raising money for her child’s expensive medical procedure through an online site and you make a donation to help her reach her goal. Or, perhaps your nephew is raising money for a mission trip over the summer and you write him a check for $25. Unfortunately, contributions earmarked for certain individuals (despite their economic, medical, educational or other needs) are not deductible according to the IRS. However, if you donate to a qualified organization that in turn helps your friend or nephew, that contribution would be deductible — although you can’t designate your donation to be directed to that person. Again, a contribution can’t be given directly or indirectly to a specific individual and still be tax-deductible.

Bountiful opportunities for charitable giving

It may seem like there are a lot of kinds of giving and plenty of nonprofits that do not qualify for the tax benefits you’re looking for, but don’t worry!  There is a multitude of ways for you to show your generosity and contribute to a charity that can minimize your estate taxes, bypass capital gains taxes, and receive current tax deductions. Of course, planned giving is not the only kind of giving. Unplanned giving is no less a means of showing your generosity and supporting those organizations whose mission and activities you believe in.

I’d love to discuss your charitable giving goals and options tailored to your individual situation. Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or by phone (515-371-60770).

Settlor (or Donor or Grantor)

The person who creates a trust is called the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor). It is the settlor’s intent which is of paramount importance. It is the intent of the settlor that determines whether a trust has been created.

Here’s a great read with a rundown on the basics of what a trust is:

Intent Is Everything

If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent that the recipient hold the property for someone else, then a trust has indeed been created. If the settlor transfers property with the intent that the recipient use the property for her own benefit, then NO trust has been created.

BONUS WORD! Precatory Trust

What if a settlor transfers property to a recipient with just a wish that the recipient use the property for the benefit of someone else, but does not impose any legal obligation? In such a situation, no legal trust is created. Instead, this is called a precatory trust, but is not a trust at all, because the settlor placed no legal responsibilities on the recipient. A precatory trust is, again, not a trust and is not governed by the law of trusts.

Three Easy Hypotheticals

  • Let’s look at three quick examples to make this clear. Mack gives stock to Julie. Mack intends that the stock be for Julie’s own use. Mack is NOT the settlor of a trust, because no trust has been created.

Stock market sheet

  • Grace gives a vacation house to Maddie, intending that Maddie hold the house for the benefit of Zach. Grace is the settlor of a trust. If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else, then a trust is created.

vacation home on lake

  • Thomas gives a coin collection to Parker, just wishing that Parker would hold the coins for Danna. This is a mere precatory trust, not a trust at all because the settlor is not imposing any legal responsibilities on the recipient.

coin collection

Questions? Let’s Talk.

When it comes to estate planning, I’m all about breaking down the legalese barriers. This hopefully clarified the definition of settlor, but you may have questions…which is great! Contact me to discuss further the status of your estate plan and decisions regarding your trust. Reach me by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or phone at 515-371-6077.

march madness basketball

Want to help make your favorite charity a winner? Encourage the charity to discuss the potential of charitable gifts of non-cash assets with donors. Donee charities can gain access to what has been called prospective donors’ “treasure chest” of non-cash assets. After all, the vast majority of a potential donor’s net worth will not be in cash, but in non-cash assets such as a home, retirement benefit plan, life insurance, etc.

Inspired by the start of NCAA March Madness, and the number of bracketed teams, here are 64 non-cash assets that could be used for charitable gifting.

Please note the alphabetized listing, I’m not recommending one gift over another, since so much depends on the individual circumstances of the donor.

airplane flying

  1. Airplanes
  2. Antique Automobiles
  3. Antiques
  4. Artwork
  5. Assets held by C Corporation
  6. Assets held by S Corporation
  7. Autograph Books
  8. Barn Doors
  9. Beach House
  10. Beanie Babies
  11. Boats
  12. Bonds
  13. Books
  14. C Corporation Stock
  15. Coin collections
  16. Comic books collection
  17. Commercial and residential real estate
  18. Condominiums
  19. Credit Card Rebates
  20. Depression-era Glass
  21. Dolls
  22. Enamelware
  23. Equestrian Ribbons
  24. Farmland
  25. Gold Bullion
  26. Grain
  27. Guitars
  28. Hedge Fund Carried Interest
  29. Historic Papers
  30. Installment Notes
  31. Intellectual Property
  32. Life Insurance
  33. Limited Liability Partnerships
  34. Livestock
  35. Marbles
  36. Mineral Rights
  37. MLB Team
  38. Mutual Funds
  39. Oil and Gas Interests
  40. Operating Partnership Units
  41. Paint-by-number Landscapes
  42. Painted Planks
  43. Paintings
  44. Patents
  45. Photographs
  46. Pooled Income Funds
  47. Racehorses
  48. Real estate
  49. Restricted Stock (144 and 145)
  50. Retained Life Estate
  51. Retirement benefits
  52. Royalties
  53. S Corporation Stock
  54. Sculpture
  55. Sculpture Garden
  56. Seat on New York Mercantile Stock Exchange
  57. Seats at Events
  58. Stamp Collection
  59. Stocks
  60. Tangible Personal Property
  61. Taxidermy
  62. Timber Deeds
  63. Vacation Home
  64. Vehicles

Vintage blue car

Pretty exhaustive list right? Like stamps and dolls, there are so many assets that you likely never even considered could be a charitable gift. And, that’s where I come in and can assist! If you’re a donor or donee nonprofit do not ever hesitate to contact me. I can always be reached at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and 515-371-6077.

board of directors hands in

If you’re thinking of forming a nonprofit organization, joining a board, or being a regular donor you may be confused by the differences between a “board of trustees” versus “board of directors.” It almost seems like they’re used interchangeably, and does it really matter? Isn’t a director a trustee, and vice versa?

In nonprofit practice and law today, both a “trustee” and a “director” describe an individual in a position of governance. But traditionally the term trustee was only used to refer to board members of a charitable foundation or trust. These days, generally, the name of a board of directors versus trustees mean the same thing and largely indicate syntactic differences.

Charitable Trust Laws

That said, some states have charitable trust acts (which are different from nonprofit corporation laws) and the term “trustee” can have a distinct meaning under such laws. In such cases, trustees are held to a higher fiduciary duty than directors, meaning trustees may be held liable for acts related to simple negligence. This means that a trustee could be held personally liable for certain acts even made in good faith.

As you might have presumed, trustees of a charitable trust have a duty to the beneficiaries of that trust.

The role of trustee can also come with an “absolute” duty of loyalty to the trust and a charge to the beneficiaries of the trust. Plus, even if approved by co-trustees, any personal transactions with the trust are prohibited.

What’s in a Name

If a nonprofit’s board members are referred to as trustees instead of directors, it doesn’t magically transform duties to those under the higher standard indicated in trust laws. But, there is a risk that in referencing board members as trustees in lieu of directors may inadvertently increase the governing board’s exposure to arguments that trust law and their associated standards applied.

Make Your Smart Start

When forming an organization or joining a nonprofit’s board, you want to be certain that the governing term—directors, trustees, or even governors—chosen is defined clearly and appropriately in governing documents. This helps ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding obligations, expectation, and legal standing. I highly recommend consulting with an attorney to make certain the officer terminology used with your organization is the best possible fit. It’s also important that the parameters of operation per that term are defined.

Questions? Concerns about your defining your board one way or another? Don’t hesitate to contact me for a free consultation. I can also assist with governing document drafting and review, as well as board training so that members know precisely their roles.

pen on desk

You’ve probably heard it before on your favorite law show or movie court case, but do you know what “quid pro quo” actually means?

Quid pro quo (“something for something” in Latin) means an exchange of goods or services, where one transfer is contingent upon the other.

Quid pro quo can have different meanings in different areas of the law. For instance, we typically hear this phrase in relation to employment law. So, in the arena of philanthropy and nonprofits, what does quid pro quo mean?

A charitable donation is deductible to the extent the donation exceeds the value of any goods or services received in exchange. So what happens when you donate to your favorite charity and receive something tangible in return? This is the issue of “quid pro quo” in charitable gift law.

giving gift

Quid Pro Quo Example

If a donor gives a charity $100 and receives an opera ticket valued at $40, the donor has made a quid pro quo contribution. In this example, the charitable contribution part of the payment is $60. The donor is entitled to a charitable deduction for $60, but not the entire $100.

Both the donor and donee have a responsibility here. The donor, of course, can only deduct the cost of the donation less the value of the goods/services received. The charitable organization must provide their donors clear, written documentation of the value of donations.

In fact, in these quid pro quo situations, under IRS rules, the nonprofit must provide a written disclosure statement. This required written disclosure statement must both:

• Inform the donor that the amount of the contribution that is deductible for federal income tax purposes is limited to the excess of any money (and the value of any property other than money) contributed by the donor over the value of goods or services provided by the charity.

• Provide the donor with a good faith estimate of the value of the goods or services that the donor received.

Free Consultation

Thinking about making a donation or looking for guidance regarding gift acceptance at your nonprofit, no quid pro quo is required! I offer a free one-hour consultation, with absolutely no obligation. I can always be reached by email at Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, and by phone at 515-371-6077.

red carpet up stairs

For every Golden Globes show, a consensus emerges as to who The Big Winner was, the Biggest Winner of all the Big Winners. And, without any doubt, the most favored of the star-studded night (beyond the impressive Sandra Oh)…was “Fiji Water Girl.”

In case you haven’t heard, Fiji Water Girl (AKA model Kelleth Cuthbert) traversed the pre-show carpet in a bold blue dress and had a knack for finding the perfect camera angles while carrying a tray of Fiji Water. Her immediate job was to hydrate the stars on the red carpet, but, she went above and beyond. By working strategically, she made it into the background of photo after photo of high profile stars. Fiji Water Girl was so noticeable she soon became a meme-worthy “celebrity” herself, and her employer undoubtedly appreciated the free/extra publicity.

Fiji Water Girl’s moment of fame is also a moment for nonprofit pros to learn three important lessons.

Everything you do, do well

There’s an old saying in Hollywood regarding bit parts, “there are no small roles, only small actors.”

I don’t have to tell you not every job in the nonprofit world is glamorous. Sure, sometimes you’re receiving accolades from your peers, scoring that massive grant, or your board is celebrating a particularly successful program you started. But, often your day is taken up by gobs of paperwork, stay atop of fundraising, field messages from donors and potential donors, and handling a veritable ocean of other administrative tasks. But, when you do have to do mundane tasks, do them unceasingly well! When you keep up an enthusiasm for tasks, no matter how seemingly small, your reputation for being dependable will bode well with colleagues, donors, and board officers.

Stay Current With Your Calendar

There are certain community events that nonprofit leaders must attend. You likely know what they are in your situation, for example, the grand opening of a donor or potential donor’s business or the big annual gala in your town. Make certain that you, or representatives from your nonprofit, are properly seen at these must-attend events. The vast majority of such events will be publicized well in advance, so it might be good to do a little brainstorming at a board meeting, to identify must-attend events and decide who’ll attend on your nonprofit’s behalf. Before anyone does attend on the nonprofit’s behalf it’s a good idea to be sure they are well versed on talking points, and fully understand the connection the nonprofit has with the event.

Go Ahead and Rock the Boat

Think about doing conventional things in unconventional ways. As many have written before, sending a receipt to a donor is mandatory – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, imaginative, or convey a meaningful message in a memorable way. Make waves! Or, let’s say your fellow board members or staff are hesitant to invest in a set of influential, important policies. Maybe they’re dragging their feet on updating a set of outdated formational documents. Make your mark by explaining the many benefits and how it will further the organization’s mission. Or, bring in a speaker (like me!) to explain the legal consequences of NOT having quality policies and procedures in place.

In short, when you’re working with a nonprofit, you could just keep to the status quo. Or, you can seize this moment, your moment, to find your light and shine. Sure, the Internet may not make a meme of you, but you can smile knowing you’re making a difference where it matters. Want to strategize? Don’t hesitate to contact me or to read more information useful for nonprofit pros.

never settle ethics picture

Acting ethically as a charitable organization is paramount to success. Even the illusion of unethical operations can cause lasting damage to your organization. (Case in point: Look at what happened to the Donald J. Trump Foundation and, by association, Eric Trump’s foundation.)

Smart nonprofit boards adopt, in writing, crucial values such as honesty, integrity, transparency, confidentiality, and equity. Sure a policy or two cannot “create” a certain culture or ethical operations by itself. But, well-drafted policies CAN actively promote and reinforce ethics in conduct and decision-making to all involved within the organization.

Major Benefits of Promoting Ethics

The realities of modern communication and social media mean that just about anyone can be a publishing “journalist.” This also means that organizations, especially nonprofits, can be subject to intense scrutiny. Because of tax-exempt status and dependence on charitable donations, nonprofits tend to be held to a higher standard than their for-profit counterparts.

An ethical issue—even the illusion of one—can split boards, cause stakeholders to pull back, snap donors’ wallets shut, and even result in expensive litigation. Fortunately, there are policies and procedures that can prevent your hardworking organization from having to deal with such controversy, by deterring unethical situations from every occurring. These policies include:

Code of Ethics

Every nonprofit should adopt a set of ethical principles to guide its decisions and conduct of its board members, officers, employees, independent contractors, volunteers, and other stakeholders. These ethical principles are typically called a “code of ethics,” “statement of values,” or “code of conduct.” Regardless of the title, the purpose of formally adopting a set of ethical principles is to provide guidelines for making ethical choices and to ensure that there is accountability for those choices. When board members adopt a code of ethics, they are actively expressing their deep commitment to ethical behavior. Making such a commitment can help earn and maintain the public’s trust.

 Confidentiality

Respecting the privacy of donors, prospective donors, employees, and volunteers, as well the nonprofit itself, must be a paramount value. For example, financial information of a donor must be treated as highly confidential, and not be disclosed or discussed with anyone without the express, explicit permission.

Care should also be taken to ensure that unauthorized individuals do not overhear any discussion of confidential information and that documents containing confidential information are not left in the open or inadvertently shared. In short, it is critical to adopt a confidentiality policy regarding identity, financial institution accounts, credit card numbers, and all such information about finances.

 Ethical Fundraising

Federal and state law significantly impact nonprofit fundraising. Beyond merely meeting what the law requires, nonprofits can demonstrate a first-class commitment to legal compliance by adopting an ethical fundraising policy. This would codify, for example, that all communications to donors and potential donors are honest and accurate. Another example: requirements to provide attributions for marketing imagery and never include information with minors that could be considered personal identifying information.

 Financial Management

Nonprofit board members, both individually and collectively, owe a fiduciary duty to ensure the organization’s assets are used in accordance with donors’ intent and the charitable mission. To ensure prudent financial management, nonprofits should adopt financial management policies.

Financial management policies clarify the roles, authority, and responsibilities for essential activities and decisions. Examples of nonprofit financial policies commonly used include a description of how cash is handled; whether and how travel expenses will be reimbursed; and the board’s role in reviewing executive compensation. 

Financial Transparency

Nonprofits also should adopt a financial transparency policy. An example of a fundamental financial transparency practice is to make information accessible to interested individuals regarding the nonprofit’s budget, sources of revenue, and information about board composition, programs, outcomes/impact, and staffing.

Basic “Good Governance” Practices

There are several basic practices every nonprofit should engage in to maintain “good governance”:

  1. Maintain corporate minutes
  2. Annual review of “conflicts of interest”
  3. Annual review of compensation
  4. Self-assessment process
  5. Diversity
  6. Board orientation/training

Updating Ethics Policies

If you already have some (or all) of the above-listed policies in place, seriously consider the last time they were updated. How has the organization changed since they were written? Have new legislative policies impacted these policies at all? It may be time for a new set of ethics policies for your organization.

Additional Policies Need

Note nonprofits also need additional policies for optimal compliance. In addition to the ten major policies and procedures that support the best possible IRS Form 990 (such as public disclosure, gift acceptance, and whistleblower) nonprofits should have documents in place covering the topics of employment; grantors and grantees; endowment management; and legal training for directors.

Questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone (515-371-6077). I’d be happy to discuss your nonprofit’s specific needs and policies promoting ethics, with you at your convenience.

A trust really isn’t as complicated as it first may seem. After all, there are only three parties to a trust.

A Settlor, Trustee, & Beneficiary

A trust is created when a property owner transfers the property to a person with the intent that the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else. So, there are three parties to a trust: (1) the owner who transfers the property (the settlor, or sometimes called the donor or grantor); (2) the person receiving the property (the trustee); and (3) the person for whose benefit the property is being held (the beneficiary).

Three men walking down the street

Note that although a trust involves three parties, it does not require three persons. One person can play multiple roles. For example, in a typical revocable inter vivos trust, it is quite common for the person establishing the trust to be the initial trustee and the principal beneficiary. In this situation, one person is all three parties – they are the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary.

What a Merger Means

There is one limitation to the rule of one person wearing multiple hats. The same person cannot be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary of the trust. In such an event, it is said merger occurs, and the trust is terminated. Why so? The essence of a trust is that it divides legal title from beneficial ownership, and merger ends this division.

In practical terms, however, merger is rarely an issue. “Wait!” you shout. You just said that in a typical revocable inter vivos trust, the person establishing the trust can be trustee and beneficiary. Yes, in this situation one person is all three parties – she is the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary. But, in almost all situations, one person isn’t the sole beneficiary. Such a trust will designate other beneficiaries who will benefit from the property after the settlor’s death. So, one person can indeed wear three hats.

Let’s Talk More About Trusts

Trusts aren’t that difficult to understand and also can provide so many helpful benefits. Want to learn more? Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com. I offer a free one-hour consultation to everyone, without any obligation. I’d be happy to talk to you any time.

blue and tan present

Thanks for reading the 25 Days of Giving series! Plan on coming back to the blog every day from now through Christmas Day.

In December there is gift giving with wrapping paper abound, but when it comes to charitable giving the important assets (like your retirement assets) don’t need ribbons or bows. Let’s first focus on a major retirement asset giving tool, the IRA charitable rollover.

IRA Charitable Rollover

This federal law allows donors age 70½ and older to make direct distributions of up to $100,000 from his/her IRA each year to any qualified charity. The donation is not treated as taxable income and, moreover, counts toward the donor’s required minimum distribution for that year.

At the end of 2015, Congress made the IRA charitable rollover a permanent giving tool, unlike the year-to-year renewal basis they had operated on since the introduction of the IRA charitable rollover in 2006 (as part of the Pension Protection Act).  The result? Tax savvy IRA account holders can now plan charitable giving in a more reliable way.

Other Options

There are two other accessible ways to direct retirement benefit plan assets to your favorite charity:

  • Gifts at death via beneficiary designations.
  • Withdrawals over age 59½ followed by outright deductible gifts that can effectively result in tax-free retirement plan gifts.

Keep in mind, too, that the IRA charitable rollover applies only to IRAs. These two options — gifts at death via beneficiary designations and withdrawals by those older than 59½ — will work with virtually all qualified retirement plans, including 401(k)s and 403(b)s. baubles on a green tree

Naming your favorite charity as beneficiary

Donors considering charitable bequests may not realize that they can make a meaningful gift simply by naming their favorite charity as the beneficiary of an IRA, 401(k), 403(b), or other retirement plan. Giving retirement assets in this way is easy, and does not require drafting or amending a will or trust. A donor simply has to contact his/her financial institution holding the retirement benefit plan and request a change of beneficiary form.

Note, however, that if the account holder is married, the spouse should be informed and may have to consent to the gift. The plan assets may also be left to a charitable or marital trust[s]. In the latter case, professional advisors should be consulted. (Hint: call me!).

Give now!

Donors could also choose to make current gifts using funds withdrawn from their qualified retirement plans. Individuals over age 59½ may generally withdraw funds from retirement plans without penalty, make a gift with these funds, and then claim an offsetting charitable deduction. In most cases, a gift made in this manner will be a “wash” for tax purposes.

Let’s take a quick example. Rebecca (age 64) wants to make a very generous donation of $10,000 to her favorite charity. She can withdraw $10,000 from her IRA or 401(k) account, and make that donation. Assuming she itemizes her tax deductions, the $10,000 donation should leave her “even Steven” with regard to taxes – the $10,000 in income is offset by the $10,000 charitable deduction, resulting in zero net income taxes.

Advice is Priceless

The decision to want to give to you favorite causes this season is easy. Knowing exactly where to start with smart giving can be a little more complex. If you have questions about the IRA charitable rollover or any other giving strategy, don’t hesitate to reach out via email or by phone (515-371-6077). My firm’s mission is to maximize charitable giving in the state of Iowa and I want to help YOU maximize your personal charitable giving (in a way that is also tax efficient).