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  • Writer's pictureMichelle R Brown

Love Offerings: Gift or Taxable Income

Churches sometimes collect “love offerings” from the congregation for a pastor, visiting minister, volunteer, or staff member in recognition of services rendered.

There really is a lot of confusion over this topic – so much so that pastors from both large and small churches have been prosecuted and convicted of tax evasion over unreported love offerings.

One of the most interesting cases was Felton vs. Commissioner TC Memo 2018-168

the Tax Court held that Rev. Wayne R. Felton of Holy Christian Church in St. Paul Minn. received taxable compensation from members of his congregation rather than personal gifts, despite the contributions' designation as gifts,

Here are the Facts: The Rev. Wayne R. Felton founded Holy Christian Church in St. Paul, Minn., in 2000. The church grew in numbers and finances. Members were provided different colored envelopes for their donations: white envelopes on which amounts could be designated "tithe," "offering," "pledge," "pastoral," or "other," and gold envelopes for special programs and retreats. All amounts collected in both these envelopes were included in donors' annual contribution statements. Felton did not receive a salary, but he was paid the amounts designated "pastoral" from the white envelopes. During the tax years at issue, the church also provided members blue envelopes labeled "pastoral gift" in which they made donations. These were given unopened to Felton, and the amounts were not reported in donors' contribution statements.

Felton and his wife self-prepared their federal income tax returns for 2008 and 2009. They reported as taxable wages about $40,000 each year from the amounts designated "pastoral" from the white envelopes. They also reported other income from a separate ministry — in all, about $70,000 to $80,000 each year — and excluded under Sec. 107(2) a $78,000 annual parsonage allowance from the church. They did not include in gross income the $258,001 in 2008 and $234,826 in 2009 from the blue envelopes. The IRS examined the returns and determined a deficiency, taking the position that the latter amounts were compensation.

Here are the Issues: Section 102(a) says, "Gross income does not include the value of property acquired by gift, bequest, devise, or inheritance." However, even though the members of the church are giving a love offering as a gift, the IRS says it is taxable income because Section 102(c)(1) says that "any amount transferred by or for an employer to, or for the benefit of, an employee" shall be treated as gross income. A gift "proceeds from a 'detached and disinterested generosity'" (Duberstein, 363 U.S. 278, 285 (1960)), as determined by an objective inquiry.

The Felton's contended that the blue-envelope donations were gifts by members, not Felton's employer, the church, and therefore excludable under Sec. 102(a).

The IRS contended the amounts were not gifts and were includible in income under Sec. 61(a). Section 61(a) of the Internal Revenue Code defines gross income as income from whatever source derived, including (but not limited to) “compensation for services, including fees, commissions, fringe benefits, and similar items.” I.R.C.

Holding: The Tax Court noted that, in previous such cases, donations' labels have not been held determinative of donors' intent. For example, in Mutch v. Commissioner, 209 F.2d 390 (3d Cir. 1954), donations called "honoraria" or "salary" were found to be gifts to a minister who was retiring. The Third Circuit held that these donations were motivated by love and affection, that the minister had been well-compensated in the past, and that he was not expected to perform future services. On the other hand, the Tax Court said, in Banks, T.C. Memo. 1991-641, donations collected on regularly scheduled special occasions and given to a minister as purported gifts were held to be compensation, in part because they were pursuant to a "highly structured program."

Consequently, the Tax Court applied a four-factor test drawn from case law to objectively determine the donors' intent:

  • Whether the donations were provided in exchange for services; cannot be for a service performed

  • Whether the minister or other church authorities requested the donations; cannot be solicited = definition: to approach with a request or plea, to urge (something, such as one's cause) strongly

  • Whether the donations were part of a routine, highly structured program and given by individual church members or the congregation as a whole; must be spontaneous in nature = definition: developing or occurring without apparent external influence, force, cause, or treatment

  • Whether the minister received a separate salary from the church, and, if so, its amount in relation to the donations.

  • cannot be a tax deduction for the donor

The Tax Court found that the first factor pointed toward considering the donations as income. Felton was not retiring, like the minister in Mutch, and donors understood that their contributions would help allow him to continue to provide them intangible religious benefits. However, in considering the second factor, the court noted that Felton and other church officials did not solicit the donations, and members had to ask for a blue envelope, which the court said pointed toward gift treatment.

Unlike Banks, where donations were made on regular special occasions by the entire church membership acting together, these donations were made by members individually throughout the two years. Nonetheless, the blue envelopes and their treatment constituted a system that evinced a structured program, the court found, indicating income treatment. Also suggesting they were income, the blue-envelope total amounts each year were high in relation to reported compensation, the court noted — more than double the combined parsonage allowance and white-envelope "pastoral" donations in 2008, and nearly so in 2009.

Having found for the IRS, the court also upheld an accuracy-related penalty. Although the law may not be clear-cut in such instances, the Felton's did not cite any case law favorable to them. There was no evidence in the record to show that they knew of any such authorities when they self-filed their returns, the court said, nor evidence demonstrating other efforts to determine their correct tax liability.

Some try to get around the tax law by making Love offerings directly from the donor to the minister or church employee so that they would be generally not taxable to the recipient. These are considered personal gifts and are not deductible as a charitable contribution by the donor. But seriously folks, it really is hard to say that a donation to your minister or other staff member is given without any regard at all to your appreciation for the work/service they provide to you/your family through the church. If the gift exceeds the annual gift limits ($15,000 per donor in 2018), the donor must file a gift tax return.

It definitely matters that every church and pastor knows when a love offering is taxable and when it is not.

So, to sum all this up and wrap it in a pretty bow….if a church takes up a collection/love offering specifically for one of its pastors or church employees, is it reportable as taxable income on Form W-2. If the recipient is not a church employee, the income should be reported on a Form 1099-/NEC if $600 or more was paid out.

~ Bookkeeping with a Purpose podcast Episode #26

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