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Charitable Contributions

29 July, 2015 - 16:31

Consider: Taxpayers entered into an agreement to purchase certain property contingent on the City Council rezoning it to permit use for a trailer court and shopping center. To assure access to the portion intended for a mobile home development, the rezoning proposal provided for dedication of a strip of the property for a public road. The road would also provide access or frontage for a public school, for a church, and for a home for the aged. Taxpayers completed their purchase and made the contemplated transfer to the city. The City Council formally adopted the rezoning ordinance.

  • Should taxpayers be permitted a charitable deduction for the value of the land it donated to the city to be used for a road?
    • Should the fact that the City of Tucson benefitted from taxpayer’s having provided the land, irrespective of taxpayer’s motive in making the donation, be sufficient in itself to permit taxpayer a deduction?
    • Would it matter if the dedication of the land to the City did not in fact increase the value of Taxpayers’ property?
  • SeeStubbs v. United States, 428 F.2d 885 (9th Cir. 1970), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 1009 (1971).

If a charitable contribution deduction turns on a weighing of benefits against the taxpayer’s cost, whose benefit should be relevant – benefit to the public or benefit to the taxpayer?

Rolfs v. Commissioner, 668 F.3d 888 (7th Cir. 2012)

HAMILTON, Circuit Judge.

Taxpayers Theodore R. Rolfs and his wife Julia Gallagher (collectively, the Rolfs) purchased a three-acre lakefront property in the Village of Chenequa, Wisconsin. Not satisfied with the house that stood on the property, they decided to demolish it and build another. To accomplish the demolition, the Rolfs donated the house to the local fire department to be burned down in a firefighter training exercise. The Rolfs claimed a $76,000 charitable deduction on their 1998 tax return for the value of their donated and destroyed house. The IRS disallowed the deduction, and that decision was upheld by the United States Tax Court. The Rolfs appeal. To support the deduction, the Rolfs needed to show a value for their donation that exceeded the substantial benefit they received in return. The Tax Court found that they had not done so. We agree and therefore affirm.

Charitable deductions for burning down a house in a training exercise are unusual but not unprecedented. By valuing their gifts as if the houses were given away intact and without conditions, taxpayers like the Rolfs have claimed substantial deductions from their taxable income. But this is not a complete or correct way to value such a gift. When a gift is made with conditions, the conditions must be taken into account in determining the fair market value of the donated property. As we explain below, proper consideration of the economic effect of the condition that the house be destroyed reduces the fair market value of the gift so much that no net value is ever likely to be available for a deduction, and certainly not here.

What is the fair market value of a house, severed from the land, and donated on the condition that it soon be burned down? There is no evidence of a functional market of willing sellers and buyers of houses to burn. Any valuation must rely on analogy. The Rolfs relied primarily on an appraiser’s before-and-after approach, valuing their entire property both before and after destruction of the house. The difference showed the value of the house as a house available for unlimited use. The IRS, on the other hand, presented experts who attempted to value the house in light of the condition that it be burned. The closest analogies were the house’s value for salvage or removal from the site intact.

The Tax Court first found that the Rolfs received a substantial benefit from their donation: demolition services valued by experts and the court at approximately $10,000. The court then found that the Rolfs’ before-and-after valuation method failed to account for the condition placed on the gift requiring that the house be destroyed. The court also found that any valuation that did account for the destruction requirement would certainly be less than the value of the returned benefit. We find no error in the court’s factual or legal analysis. The IRS analogies provide reasonable methods for approximating the fair market value of the gift here. The before-and-after method does not.