Patterns of Giving by the Wealthy

Urban Institute

While almost all wealthy individuals make charitable contributions during their lifetimes, most fail to make charitable gifts when they die. But when they do, these contributions are, on average, many times larger than the gifts they gave over their last few years of life, even though earlier giving would have almost always reduced their total tax burden. In this study, we use a file of estate tax returns matched to income tax returns to analyze charitable giving by wealthy individuals at the time of their death (2007) compared with giving over their last five years of life (2002–06). We examine likely reasons for these giving patterns and their implication: that strengthening appeals focused on the legacy opportunities provided by wealth might significantly increase charitable giving.


People with higher incomes and greater wealth account for a significant share of the total contributions received by charities. For instance, excluding gifts from estates or foundations, people in the top quintile of the income distribution are estimated to give $193 billion out of a projected $306 billion in total charitable giving—63 percent of all charitable contributions—in 2018.1 Seldom, however, are data available to examine patterns of giving by the wealthy both during life and at death.

This study matches estate and income tax returns to draw a broader picture of the generosity of the wealthy than can be had from most surveys or from income tax data alone. These data are invaluable for research on the giving patterns of the wealthy and whether they give consistently or optimize their giving for tax purposes.

The data similarly inform charities’ decisions as to the relative importance of fundraising through planned giving and related appeals to top wealthholders vis-à-vis general contribution drives. As one example, a charity might reflect on the known housing or business wealth of its board members and conclude from this study that generating two bequests to the charity might add more resources than one year of fundraising drives.

As another example, beginning in 2010, close to 200 of the world’s wealthiest individuals across several continents signed up for the Giving Pledge, a commitment to give the majority of their wealth to charity.2 Most have wealth in excess of $100 million, yet little is known about the typical patterns of giving by people with similar levels of wealth. In this study, we look at some of the lifetime (2002–06) and deathtime (2007) charitable giving patterns of a more random set of people, with wealth ranging from $2 million to well over $100 million, in a period before this pledge drive was conducted. These data provide insights into the still-open question of the potential success of that type of pledge effort among people with moderate or high wealth. More generally, it provides insights into “planned giving” efforts, here broadly defined to extend beyond estate planning to the lifetime opportunities for giving provided by wealth, not just current income.

The Estate Tax, Income Tax, and Tax Treatment of Charitable Giving

During the five years examined here (2002–06), a person itemizing deductions was eligible to receive a deduction each year for charitable giving up to 50 percent of his or her adjusted gross income. Generally, the maximum deduction was reduced to 30 percent (or less) if gifts were made in the form of capital gain assets or to private foundations engaged mainly in grantmaking. Excess amounts were allowed a carryover but, when combined with new giving, only up to each year’s annual limits. Charitable gifts were fully excludable from the combined estate and gift tax for transfers made at death or during life.

Charitable gifts made during life are almost always more “tax efficient” than gifts at time of death because they potentially benefit from both income and estate tax deductions. Even when 2002–06 gifts exceed maximum income-tax deduction limits (for most people in this sample, annual giving does not reach that level), 100 percent of any gift’s investment returns now earned by the charity rather than the individual would effectively be fully excludable from income and estate tax. In contrast, when individuals hold on to the assets and then later give away the investment returns, those same investment returns would more likely be subject to income tax caps or limitations.3

Of course, only the richest of estates are subject to the estate tax. By 2007, the year of death for the study population, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 had increased the exclusion amount before one had to pay estate tax from a net worth of $675,000 in 2001 (with a top rate of 55 percent) to a net worth of over $2 million (with a top rate of 45 percent). Debts, transfers to spouses, and charity can all add to the base level of wealth excluded from taxation.

Administrative estate tax data on the top wealthholders since 2007 have become increasingly unavailable. By 2010, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act had temporarily repealed the estate tax for one year, and after a couple of adjustments, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 established a base exemption of $5 million, to be adjusted for inflation, with a top rate of 40 percent. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017, the basic exclusion amount for 2018 was effectively doubled to $10,000,000, indexed for inflation after 2011, with a top rate of 40 percent.4 The information provided by our sample is thus extremely important for understanding the charitable giving behavior of the wealthy.