January 06, 2010

Local Church Serving as a Mission Agency

Question:

A church set up a missions fund that will go to support a couple doing missions work in a foreign country. It will treat the couple as employees on the church's payroll. It wants to set up a reimbursable expense account to help reduce their taxable income. The big question is what is reimbursable? In particular, are their rent and utilities considered a business expense? They are not ordained at this time and will not receive a housing allowance.

Answer:

As employees of the church, reimbursements the couple receives for employee business expenses are not taxable. Mission agencies typically treat missionaries as their employees, require meticulous record keeping, and, then, use funds in their accounts to first reimburse (or pay directly) these expenses. IRS Publication 463--Travel, Entertainment, Gift, and Car Expenses--may be particularly helpful to identify which expenses can be reimbursed tax-free. However, other legitimate ministry expenses (literature, meeting costs, local transportation, etc.) may be reimbursed.

This tax-free reimbursement does not include their personal living expenses for rent, utilities, food, etc. since they will have established a tax home in the foreign country. Further, since they are not licensed, ordained, performing what the IRS defines as "sacerdotal duties" (baptisms, communion, weddings, funerals), or conducting religious worship they are not eligible for a clergy housing allowance (Source: IRS Minister Audit Technique Guide, April 2009).

The church may wish to consider whether it recognizes the call of God to the gospel ministry upon the missionary and may legitimately license him. I am not at all suggesting that licensure be taken lightly. If the couple is going to simply live in the foreign country and perform ministry, but not ministerial service, I do not recommend licensure simply to gain tax benefits. Of course, in certain "closed" countries, performing sacerdotal duties and conducting religious worship is not permitted.

Regardless whether they can be provided a clergy housing allowance, the couple's tax preparer may conclude that they are qualified for foreign income exclusion. Of course, they will want to consider whether there are any foreign country tax issues to deal with.

Question:

The church did not realize it would have to set up employees and began receiving contributions for the couple. The couple has been in the foreign country now for two months. Because they will not be set up as employees until 2010, they have yet to receive compensation from the church. They do have business expenses from 2009 for which they would like to be reimbursed. Can they be reimbursed in 2010 for these expenses?

Answer:

With proper documentation, they can be reimbursed now. They should not attempt to deduct these expenses on their 2009 return since they will be reimbursed in 2010.

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