''In times of tragedy and great need, there are individuals and organizations that solicit money. They may or may not be well intentioned.'' The famine in Ethopia is such a time, says James R. Avedisian, tax partner and national director for personal financial planning at Coopers & Lybrand, the accounting firm.
And although many highly respected and legitimate organizations are raising money to send much-needed food and emergency supplies to that country, Mr. Avedisian says, there may also be groups and individuals asking you for money that will never reach Africa.
Normally, Avedisian says, stories about fund-raising groups that funnel little if any of the money they raise to the particular charity come out at Christmastime, when many groups do the bulk of their solicitation.
But publicity about Ethopia has made it necessary for people to get an early reminder about checking out charities. ''Something like this certainly creates an opportunity for people to be dishonest,'' Avedisian notes.
Coincidentally, it also creates an opportunity to get reacquainted with the rules on income tax deductions for charitable contributions. Some of these rules are more liberal than they were a few years ago.
If you're not sure a particular group is both legitimate and qualified for status as a charity for income tax purposes, finding out is not difficult, Avedisian says: ''If someone approaches you and says they are from a charity, ask them, 'May I see a copy of your determination letter?' ''
This letter, he says, proves that the organization has applied to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, and it has been approved as a charitable, religious, educational, public, or scientific organization. If the person asking for money doesn't have a copy, a branch or home office should have one that can be photocopied for you.
Although the effort needed to get this letter may not be worth the bother for a small donation of, say, $20 or less, it does make sense for a larger gift, particularly if you intend to claim the deduction on your taxes.
Deducting a charitable contribution from income taxes is not limited to people who can itemize, says Laurent W. Metzler, personal financial planning officer at Provident National Bank in Philadelphia.
This year, non-itemizers can deduct 25 percent of contributions up to a maximum deduction of $75 ($150 on a joint return) of charitable contributions. This deduction can be taken whether you use Form 1040, 1040A, or the shortest of them, 1040EZ.
Next year, non-itemizers will be able to deduct 50 percent of all contributions, and in 1986, unless the law is changed again, it goes up to 100 percent.
If you itemize, you may deduct 100 percent of your charitable contributions. For people who make heavy donations, however, there are limits of 50, 30, or 20 percent of adjusted gross income. Which of these limits applies depends on what is given and what type of organization. A tax adviser should be able to tell you where you fit in here.
(If you like, you can even send an extra contribution to the US Treasury. As long as it's an extra payment beyond what you owe for taxes and designated as such, you can deduct this, too.)
People giving to aid an urgent problem, such as Ethopia, are not concerned about timing their donations. They know the money is needed now, and income tax considerations are no better than a secondary concern. But for other charitable causes, the recipients will be just as happy to have you wait and make a tax-advantaged donation as not make one at all.
In general, the rules on timing donations have been tightened. Previously, you could put a donation on a credit card in one year and pay the bill the next year and take the deduction in that second year. You can't do that anymore. Credit card gifts are only deductible in the year you incur the debt.
Other contributions by cash or check are deductible in the year they are actually mailed or delivered. If you make a pledge by phone, you will receive a statement from the organization; the date of that statement is the date you use on tax forms.
You can give the charity a promissory note this year and pay off the note next year, for a deduction from 1985 taxes, if that suits your needs better.
You can also make two years' worth of contributions in one year, perhaps by paying the second year's donation at the end of the first year, or by making the first year's contribution at the beginning of the second year.
It is also possible to give something that, from a tax point of view, is better than money: securities. ''This is a tax-planning technique we often tell our clients about,'' Avedisian says. As long as the stocks or other securities are eligible for long-term capital-gains treatment, you can give them to the charity and claim their fair market value as a charitable contribution. This fair-market-value rule applies to any property you give to a charity.
If it is a stock, the charity can turn around and sell it immediately, if it needs the money, or later, if its officers think it might be to their advantage to hold onto it for a while. In any case, the charity will not have to pay any tax on the gain.
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