'Tis the season to give, and get a tax break

As we approach year-end, many people consider making donations to their favorite charity. And given that charitable gifts can also help lower your tax liability, you can make such a gift now and still get deduction on your 2015 tax return.

But the IRS has been paying an increasing amount of attention to charitable donation claims in recent years. So, it's important for you to keep good records about what you gave, when you gave it and how you determined its value.

Here are a few common ways to make donations and the things to keep in mind to make sure you get the appropriate tax savings.

Gifts by check or cash

Cash gifts are hard to prove unless you get a receipt from the charity. If you're audited, the IRS will ask for proof for any deductions arising from cash gifts. Gifts by check are hard to falsify, but you should still get a receipt.

And make sure any receipt states the amount of the gift and the organization's name, address and tax ID.

Also, when making a year-end gift by check, make sure the check is dated and mailed no later than Dec. 31 to claim the donation on your 2015 tax return. The IRS follows the "delivered when mailed rule" for checks mailed to charity, which means the mailed date is deemed to be the date of the gift.

Make sure to get a mailing receipt from the post office. And know that post-dated checks are deemed to not be immediately payable. So, a check dated Jan. 2, 2016, but delivered in December this year, isn't deductible until you file your 2016 tax return.

Donations made by credit card

These contributions are deductible in the year the charge is posted to your card account. In Publication 526, the IRS points out credit card donations aren't subject to delivery rules that apply to checks. As long as the donation is processed and posted to your credit card by midnight on Dec. 31, it's deductible for that tax year.

This can be a valuable for those who'd like to make the donation now but don't have the cash to cover it until early next year. The rule for retaining a receipt as a record for your donation still applies. Also, if you received anything of value in connection with the gift, such a theater tickets or a service, the donation must be reduced by the fair value of the item or service you received.

  • Ray Martin

    View all articles by Ray Martin on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Ray Martin has been a practicing financial advisor since 1986, providing financial guidance and advice to individuals. He has appeared regularly as a contributor on the CBS Early Show, CBS NewsPath, as a columnist on CBS Moneywatch.com and on NBC-TV's morning newscast TODAY. He has also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and is the author of two books.