The English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding once wrote that "a rich man without charity is a rogue; and perhaps it would be no difficult matter to prove that he is also a fool." But sometimes you can be rich, charitable, and foolish, all at the same time. And that can make for some really expensive mistakes.
Joseph Mohamed is a California real estate broker and appraiser who's made a fortune buying, selling, and developing real estate. In 1998, he and his wife Shirley set up a charitable remainder trust for the benefit of the Shriners Hospitals for Children, the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, and the Pacific Legal Foundation. Then, in 2003 and 2004, he donated six California properties to the trust: four adjacent street corners in Rio Linda, a 40-acre subdivided parcel south of Sacramento, and a shopping center in Elk Grove.
Mohamed prepared his own taxes for those two years — definitely not standard operating procedure for someone in his shoes. When it came time to fill out Form 8283, "Noncash Charitable Contributions", he skipped the instructions because "it seemed so clear that he didn't think he needed to." The form said the description of the donated property could be "completed by the taxpayer and/or appraiser." And Mohamed was an appraiser, right? Of course he knew what his own properties were worth. How hard could it really be? He attached statements to his returns explaining how he valued the two biggest parcels. Then he deducted $18.5 million for the gift, satisfied that he had done all he needed to substantiate his write-off.
It turns out, though, that the IRS wants a teensy bit more than just your say-so before handing out eighteen million in benefits. In fact, they have some pretty specific rules for deducting any gift of property worth more than $5,000. You need a "qualified" appraisal, made no sooner than 60 days before the gift and no later than the due date of the return reporting the gift itself. It has to be signed by a certified appraiser — not the donor or the taxpayer claiming the deduction. And the appraisal has to include specific information about the property itself, your basis in the property, and how you acquired it in the first place.
The IRS started auditing Mohamed's 2003 return in April, 2005. You can probably imagine how charitably inclined they were toward his self-appraisal. So Mohamed went out and got independent appraisals showing the properties were worth over $20 million — two million more than he deducted. And the trust actually sold the 40 acres south of Sacramento for $23 million. You would think that would be enough. But you would be wrong. The IRS held firm, and the case wound up in Tax Court.
Last month, the Court issued their 26-page opinion in Mohamed v. Commissioner. They ruled that none of Mohamed's appraisals were "qualified" under Section 1.170A-13(c)(3)(i) and shot down his entire deduction. The Court confessed that "We recognize that this result is harsh — complete denial of charitable deductions to a couple that did not overvalue, and may well have undervalued, their contributions — all reported on forms that even to the Court’s eyes seemed likely to mislead someone who didn’t read the instructions." But, the Court continued, "the problems of miss-valued property are so great that Congress was quite specific about what the charitably inclined have to do to defend their deductions, and we cannot in a single sympathetic case undermine those rules."
So, ouch. Big, big ouch. (Insert your own expletive here.) Eighteen million bucks worth of deductions, lost because someone didn't dot the i's and cross the t's. Six million in actual tax savings, down the proverbial drain. We realize it sounds self-serving to tell you to come to us before you make a big financial move. But Joseph Mohamed's case emphasizes how important this really is. You may not have millions riding on doing it right. But are you really willing to risk tax benefits you truly deserve by doing it yourself?
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