Can I make charitable contributions from my IRA?
Yes, if you qualify. The law authorizing "qualified charitable distributions," or QCDs, has recently been extended through 2011.
You simply direct your IRA trustee to make a distribution directly from your IRA (other than a SEP or SIMPLE) to a qualified charity. You must be 70½ or older, and the distribution must be one that would otherwise be taxable to you. You can exclude up to $100,000 of QCDs from your gross income in 2011. If you file a joint return, your spouse (if 70½ or older) can exclude an additional $100,000 of QCDs in 2011. But you can't also deduct QCDs as a charitable contribution on your federal income tax return--that would be double dipping.
QCDs count toward satisfying any required minimum distributions (RMDs) that you would otherwise have to take from your IRA in 2011, just as if you had received an actual distribution from the plan. However, distributions that you actually receive from your IRA (including RMDs) that you subsequently transfer to a charity cannot qualify as QCDs.
For example, assume that your RMD for 2011 is $25,000. In June 2011, you make a $15,000 QCD to Qualified Charity A. You exclude the $15,000 of QCDs from your 2011 gross income. Your $15,000 QCD satisfies $15,000 of your $25,000 RMD. You'll need to withdraw another $10,000 (or make an additional QCD) by December 31, 2011, to avoid a penalty.
You could instead take a distribution from your IRA and then donate the proceeds to a charity yourself, but this would be a bit more cumbersome, and possibly more expensive. You'd include the distribution in gross income and then take a corresponding income tax deduction for the charitable contribution. But the additional tax from the distribution may be more than the charitable deduction, due to IRS limits. QCDs avoid all this by providing an exclusion from income for the amount paid directly from your IRA to the charity--you don't report the IRS distribution in your gross income, and you don't take a deduction for the QCD. The exclusion from gross income for QCDs also provides a tax-effective way for taxpayers who don't itemize deductions to make charitable contributions.