Raising money through Internet crowdfunding sites prompts questions about the taxability of the money raised. A number of sites host money-raising projects for fees generally ranging from 5 to 9%, including GoFundMe, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo. Each site specifies its own charges, limitations, and withdrawal processes. The money raised may or may not be taxable depending what the purpose of the fundraising campaign was.
Gifts – When an entity raises funds for its own benefit and the contributions are made out of detached generosity (and not because of any moral or legal duty or the incentive of anticipated economic benefit), the contributions are considered tax-free gifts to the recipient.
On the other hand, the contributor is subject to the gift tax rules if they contribute more than $15,000 to a particular fundraising effort that benefits one individual; the contributor is then liable to file a gift tax return. Unfortunately, regardless of the need, gifts to individuals are never tax deductible.
A “gift tax trap“ occurs when an individual establishes a crowdfunding account to help someone else in need (the beneficiary) and takes possession of the funds before passing the money on to the beneficiary. Because the fundraiser has possession of the funds, the contributions are treated as a tax-free gift to the fundraiser. However, when the fundraiser passes the money on to the beneficiary, the money is then treated as a gift from the fundraiser to the beneficiary; if the amount is over $15,000, the fundraiser is required to file a gift tax return and reduce their lifetime gift and estate tax exemption. Some crowdfunding sites allow fundraisers to designate a beneficiary to have direct access to the funds, in which case the fundraiser avoids encountering any gift tax problems.
Gifts to specific individuals, regardless of need, are not considered charitable contributions under tax law—for example, raising funds to help pay for someone’s funeral expenses. Another example, which includes a little tax twist, would be raising money to help someone pay for their medical expenses. Because it is a gift, it is not taxable to the recipient, but if the recipient itemizes their deductions, any amount of the gift the recipient spends to pay for their (or a spouse’s or dependent’s) medical expenses can be included as a medical expense when the recipient is itemizing deductions on Schedule A of their individual tax return.
Charitable Gifts – Even if the funds are being raised for a qualified charity, the contributors cannot deduct the donations as charitable contributions without proper documentation. Taxpayers cannot deduct cash contributions (including payments by check, credit card, or made electronically), regardless of the amount, unless they can document the contributions in one of the following ways:
Thus, if the contributor is to claim a charitable deduction for a cash donation made through a crowdfunding campaign, the contributor must have some way of obtaining a receipt.
Business Ventures – When raising money for business projects, there are two issues to contend with: the taxability of the money raised and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations that come into play if the contributor is given an ownership interest in the venture.
On the bright side, even if the money raised is income to the business, it will probably net out to zero taxable if it is spent on tax-deductible business expenses.
Does the IRS Track Crowdfunding? – Maybe. It depends on the aggregate number of backers contributing to the fundraising campaign and the total amount of funds processed through third-party transaction companies (credit card, PayPal, etc.). These third-party processers are required to issue a Form 1099-K reporting the gross amount of such transactions. There is a de minimis reporting threshold of $20,000 or 200 reportable transactions per year. The question is, will the third party follow the de minimis rule?
Be Cautious to Avoid Crowdfunding Scams – Keep in mind that the project or campaign you are considering backing is only as good as the people behind it. Some dishonest people can take your money but produce nothing—no product, no project, and no reward. If you’re thinking about contributing to a crowdfunding campaign, take time to research the fundraiser’s background and reviews before you pay. For example, have they engaged in previous campaigns? Were those campaigns successful? Be suspicious if you find that the person behind the campaign is on multiple crowdfunding sites—they may be attempting to raise as much money from as many people as possible and then disappear.