Substantiation of Charitable Contributions Under DEFRA

The deductibility of a charitable contribution depends on the donor-taxpayer meeting several conditions, which conditions are determined by the size and type of contribution.  The larger the contribution, the more stringent the documentation and substantiation that is needed.[1]  With respect to non-cash donations, the amount of the contribution is generally equal to the fair market value of the property at the time of contribution.[2] Determining the FMV, however, is the factor that taxpayers so often fail to meet.

Are You (Compliant with) DEFRA?

In 1984, Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA).[3] Section 155(a) of DEFRA authorized (and required) the Treasury to prescribe regulations implementing substantiation requirements for noncash charitable contributions in excess of $5,000, which substantiation necessarily would require “qualified appraisals” of the donated property.[4] The Treasury’s authority to promulgate regulations related to charitable donations is further set forth in IRC § 170(a)(1).

In response to DEFRA, the Treasury promulgated Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c), which codifies the qualified appraisal requirement by setting out the information required to be included as a part of the substantiation for the property donation.  The appraisal must be prepared by a qualified appraiser and a complete (and compliant) appraisal summary must be attached to the return on which the taxpayer first claims a deduction for the contribution.[5]

A compliant qualified appraisal summary must include, among other information, a description of the property in sufficient detail to ascertain that the property that was appraised is the property that was contributed, the manner of acquisition, the date of acquisition of the property by the donor.  Most critically, the summary must set out the cost or other basis of the property.[6]

The “appraisal summary” is a summary of a qualified appraisal which must be made on a Form 8283, and that form must be attached to the return.[7] The regulations could not be any clearer about the requirements, but compliance with the enumerated steps hamstrings ever so many taxpayers.

DEFRAUnderstanding that they were asking a lot of taxpayers, the Treasury Regulations even provides an escape hatch.  Although the failure to meet all of the required elements of an appraisal summary will generally result in the disallowance of the charitable deduction, if a taxpayer can demonstrate reasonable cause for its inability to provide the information relating to the manner of acquisition or even the actual basis of the contributed property, this failure may not be absolutely fatal to the deduction.[8]

“An appropriate explanation” of reasonable cause must be attached to the appraisal summary, which means that in any event, an appraisal summary must be provided and attached to the return, even if it is not 100% complete or compliant.  Failure to include a complete summary, or a partial summary and a reasonable cause statement is, in the regulations’ estimation a failure to substantiate the deduction.  “Strict compliance” includes compliance with the reasonable cause requirement, which is, in and of itself, less than full compliance with the regulatory requirements…and yet, taxpayers often can’t even be bothered to get this part right.

“But we tried really hard,” the taxpayers plead.  “We ‘substantially complied’ with DEFRA; isn’t that enough?”

“Not good enough!” replies the Tax Court cracking its whip to punctuate its swift condemnation.

Substantial Compliance with DEFRA
Not a good choice under DEFRA…or any tax law, while we’re at it.

The Tax Court recognizes the doctrine of substantial compliance.[9] Substantial compliance may bail out the taxpayers where they have provided most of the important information required by the statute or regulations, or the taxpayers’ omissions were made solely through inadvertence.[10]

The key question under the substantial compliance doctrine is whether the taxpayers were compliant with those requirements that relate to the “substance or essence” of the statute at issue, here DEFRA.[11] If the requirements relate to the substance or essence of the statute, then strict adherence is mandatory.[12]

If the requirements are instead procedural or directory, then the requirements may be fulfilled by substantial compliance.[13] If, however, the element is absolutely essential to the very purpose of the regulation, a taxpayer must always comply with it in order to satisfy the spirit of the regulation.[14]

The Banana Pancake Syllogism

DEFRA PancakeBreaking Down DEFRA If this is too complicated for you, as it was for ever so many taxpayers, think of it this way: if your three-year-old asks you to make banana pancakes, and you absentmindedly forget the bananas, you’ve still made her pancakes.  If you forget the flour, baking soda, milk, oil, and eggs, you have bananas.  One of these is substantial compliance, and the other is what the taxpayers often argue.  In a word: bananas.

The Tax Court has historically cautioned that the doctrine of substantial compliance is not liberally applied.[15] Just like it’s tough sledding to convince the three-year-old to eat the banana-less pancakes, it is not easy for taxpayers to convince the Tax Court to stomach failure to strictly comply with the letter of the law.  Further, in passing § 155 of DEFRA, Congress intended to tightly regulate the longstanding problem of overvalued property being claimed as charitable deductions.[16]

Bright Line Rule for Substantial Compliance

If the donor/taxpayer provided sufficient information to permit the IRS to evaluate the taxpayer/donor’s reported contributions, i.e., basis, then the pancakes will less often be fed to the willing Labrador under the table.[17] A taxpayer who fails to disclose cost or adjusted basis on its appraisal summary has failed to substantially comply with Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13, and you’ll be left scraping pancake of the kitchen window, metaphorically, of course.

A taxpayer’s failure to provide the cost or adjusted basis on an appraisal summary is fatal to a taxpayer’s argument of substantial compliance in this context.[18] Basis, like flour, is an absolute requirement.  Without it, a charitable deduction is dead in the water.  And before you bring up gluten free options, just stop, snowflake. My metaphors do not have time for your almond meal.

IRS Will not Reconstruct Basis for the Taxpayer

The Tax Court has more than once pointed out that the entire freaking point of DEFRA’s heightened substantiation requirements was to prevent the IRS from having to do exactly what the petitioners were asking it to do.[19] “Revenue agents cannot be required to sift through dozens or hundreds of pages of complex returns looking for clues about what the taxpayer’s cost basis might be.”[20] Provide basis to the IRS on the line of Form 8283 that says “basis,” and you’ll be golden…assuming you can substantiate it and haven’t just pulled the number out of the air, or wherever…

The Joint Committee on Taxation’s “Summary” of DEFRA


[1] See IRC § 170(a)(1).

[2] See Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-1(c)(1).

[3] Pub. L. No. 98-369, 98 Stat. at 691.

[4] See DEFRA, § 155(a); IRC § 170(f)(11)(c).

[5] See DEFRA, § 155(a)(1)(B); Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(2); Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(4).

[6] Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(4)(ii)(B), (D), (E).

[7] Treas. Reg. 1.170A-13(c)(4)(i)(A).

[8] Treas. Reg. 1.170A-13(c)(4)(iv)(C)(1).

[9] See Loube v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-3; RERI Holdings I, LLC v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. 1, 15-16 (2017), aff’d sub nom. Blau v. Commissioner, 924 F.3d 1261 (D.C. Cir. 2019).

[10] Hewitt v. Commissioner, 109 T.C. 258, 265 & n.10 (1997), aff’d without published opinion, 166 F.3d 332 (4th Cir. 1998); see also Durden v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2012-140.

[11] Bond v. Commissioner, 100 T.C. 32, 40-41 (1993) (quoting Taylor v. Commissioner, 67 T.C. 1071, 1077 (1977)).

[12] See Dunavant v. Commissioner, 63 T.C. 316, 319-320 (1974).

[13] RERI Holdings I, LLC, 149 T.C. at 15-16.

[14] See Bond, 100 T.C. at 41; see also Belair Woods, LLC v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-159, at *15-*17.

[15] Costello v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-87, at *23 (quoting Alli v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-15, at *54)); Kaufman v. Shulman, 687 F.3d 21, 29 (1st Cir. 2012) (court may forgive “minor discrepancies” in the taxpayer’s reporting); Prussner v. United States, 896 F.2d 218, 224 (7th Cir. 1990) (substantial compliance doctrine “should be interpreted narrowly”).

[16] Mohamed v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2012-152.

[17] Smith v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2007-368, aff’d, 364 F. App’x 317 (9th Cir. 2009).

[18] Smith, T.C. Memo. 2007-368 at *20; Belair Woods, LLC, T.C. Memo. 2018-159 at *15-*20.

[19] Loube, T.C. Memo. 2020-3, *23; Belair Woods, LLC, T.C. Memo. 2018-159 at *20.

[20] Id.

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