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YOUR MONEY WEEKEND | Money Talk

Little Tax, Charity Benefit in Car Donation

October 20, 2000|LIZ PULLIAM WESTON

Tis the season for car-donation commercials to clog the airwaves, urging you to donate your clunker for a good cause.

Typically, these donation programs are a bad deal--for taxpayers and charities alike. Many programs, including some that advertise heavily, exaggerate the tax benefits available. Meanwhile, much of the proceeds benefit the for-profit towing and wrecking companies that run the programs, with sometimes as little as $100 per car going to the charity.

But there are a couple of programs that guarantee 100% of the car's value actually goes to a good cause.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity that benefits the homeless and poor, has run a car donation program for more than 10 years. The society handles all the details of processing donated cars and accepts vehicles whether they run or not. Donors in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties can call (800) 97-HELP-1 to arrange for a free pickup, or cars can be dropped off at the society's Los Angeles or Port Hueneme stores. For more details, call the toll-free number or visit http://www.svdpla.org/donations.html.

J.D. Power, the auto research firm, just launched a car donation program that promises all proceeds to charity. J.D. Power will pay all the towing, processing and auctioning costs and donate the car sale proceeds to Starbright Foundation, a charity chaired by Steven Spielberg and Norman Schwarzkopf that benefits seriously ill children in five Los Angeles-area hospitals.

Like most car donation programs, this one will take inoperative cars as well, "although we do ask that they be in one piece," said spokesman Benjamin Gold.

For more details, call (800) 227-2582 or visit http://www.carclub.com.

Before you donate, remember that you're not going to be better off financially by donating a car than you would be by selling it, despite what some of those car-donation commercials imply. Any available tax donation wouldn't equal what you could get by selling the car yourself.

To get any tax benefit, you must be able to itemize your deductions. That means your deductible expenses--mortgage interest, property taxes, job-related expenses, total charitable donations--must equal more than the standard deduction, which for 2000 is $7,600 for married couples filing jointly and $4,550 for singles. If you don't have enough expenses to itemize, you won't be able to use your car donation to reduce your taxes.

Finally, you can't write off more than what the car would sell for--again, despite what some commercials say.

If you do decide to donate, consult your tax advisor for more details.

*

Liz Pulliam Weston is a personal finance writer for The Times and a graduate of the personal financial planning certificate program at UC Irvine. Questions can be sent to her at liz.pulliam@latimes.com or mailed to her in care of Money Talk, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. She regrets that she cannot respond personally to queries. For previous Money Talk questions and answers, visit The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/moneytalk.

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