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May 25, 2011

Politics and the gift tax: The role of noncharitable exempt organizations

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By Professor Ellen Aprill

This is another installment in the Summary Judgments summer series, "The Headline Club," in which Loyola Law School professors will discuss legal issues ripped from the front page.

The role of noncharitable exempt organizations, in particular section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, was perhaps the key feature of last year's election. One New York Times editorial, for example, declared: "For all the headlines about the Tea Party and blind voter anger, the most disturbing story of this year's election is embodied in an odd combination of numbers and letters: 501(c)(4)." IRS rules permit Section 501(c)(4) organizations to engage in political campaign activity so long as such is not their primary activity. At the same time, section 501(c)(4) organizations need not disclose their contributors to the public. There is, however, no statutory exception to the gift tax for transfers to section 501(c)(4) organizations., and the IRS announced as far back as 1982 that it considered such transfers subject to gift tax.

Until recently, the IRS has not enforced the gift tax on transfers to section 501(c)(4) organizations for many years. Moreover, few contributors would be subject to the gift tax. Currently, a contributor to a section 501(c)(4) organization does not treat annual transfers of the first $13,000 as a taxable gift; a contributor would owe no gift tax out of pocket until total transfers to these organizations and other taxable gifts exceeded $5,000,000.

Nonetheless, some individuals do contribute very large amounts to section 501(c)(4) organizations. It recently became known - and the IRS confirmed - that the agency has sent letters to five donors to section 501(c)(4) organizations asking why they had not filed a gift tax return for these transfers. The IRS stated that the inquiries were initiated by agency employees, not the White House or other administration officials, as part of increased efforts to enforce the estate and gift tax. (We know, for example, that in addition to inquiries regarding transfers to section 501(c)(4) organizations, the IRS has asked a number of states for records of intrafamily transfers.)

The current gift tax treatment of transfers to section 501(c)(4) organizations is an anomaly. Under the Internal Revenue Code, neither transfers to charitable organizations nor transfers to political organizations are subject to the gift tax. Yet, transfers to section 501(c)(4) organizations, which can share features of charities and political organizations, enjoy no such statutory exception. Perhaps the current furor over IRS enforcement of the gift tax for transfers to section 501(c)(4) organizations will impel Congress to do what it should have done long ago and change the law and provide a statutory exception for such transfers. At the same time, as I have suggested in a recent article, Congress could reconsider the disclosure rules applicable to section 501(c)(4) organizations.