Federal and some state tax laws allow you to deduct travel expenses for charity. These include charity miles you accumulate by driving your car or gas you buy to do charitable work or attend meetings connected with a charity. Whether you can use mileage write-offs depends on whether the organization qualifies as a charity and whether the trip is for charity or for pleasure other than the joy of helping others.
As of 2011, federal law gives you a deduction of 14 cents per mile. Some states, such as Iowa, allow an additional write-off, which is figured by multiplying the miles traveled by a rate higher than 14 cents per mile and subtracting the federal write-off. Rather than take the standard 14 cents per mile, you can write-off the amount you spent in gas traveling for charity work. To deduct, you must pay for the gas with your own money. The write-off is not allowed if the charity reimbursed you for the mileage or gas.
You can write-off miles you travel for serving the charity, including travel to the charity site and back home. The Internal Revenue Service allows travel deductions if you supervise a youth group or Scout troop at camp, attend a conference or meeting as the charity's representative or drive to do charity work. However, don't treat the trip as your vacation or take junkets for significant recreation or pleasure. You won't get a write-off if you spend more time at play than at work for the charity. As the IRS illustrates in its instructions, a person who digs at an archeological project for several hours then sight-sees the rest of the day will not get a mileage deduction.
Definition of Charity
The charity must only pursue religion, education or science; the promotion of reading; the prevention of child or animal abuse; or other charitable actions. These include assisting the poor, providing disaster or hunger relief, stopping discrimination and working with at-risk children or youth. The charity can be a church, temple, synagogue or mosque; not-for-profit school or hospital; public park or recreation center; or group such as the Salvation Army, the United Way, a Scouting organization, Goodwill Industries or the Red Cross. You cannot treat individuals in need, labor unions, political parties, international nonprofit organizations (unless certain ones in Canada, Mexico and Israel), sports leagues or social clubs as charities.
Keep accurate and complete records of your charity miles or gas. You only have to report the total on your tax forms. You do not send your records with your tax return, but you must be able to back up your claim if the IRS questions your write-off or audits you. Write down where you leave from and where you go, the miles you drove to get there, and the day and time of your trip. Ask your charity for a mileage form. Save receipts if you want to deduct the cost of gas rather than take the 14 cents per mile. Write the destination or purpose of the trip on the receipt.
Donating Airline Miles
Some "charity miles" come from frequent airline passengers rather than car drivers. Many frequent fliers allow airlines to donate their miles. Charities use them to transport volunteers to disaster areas or terminally-ill children to special trips and vacations. However, these donated "charity miles" are not deductible because the airline, not the flier, donates the miles.
Christopher Raines enjoys sharing his knowledge of business, financial matters and the law. He earned his business administration and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a lawyer since August 1996, Raines has handled cases involving business, consumer and other areas of the law.