The reports of the effects of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico were devastating. Electricity lost. Homes destroyed and streets flooded. Deaths reported. In a season of horrendous natural disasters, Puerto Rico got hit especially hard.
While services are being restored to Puerto Rico and relief is finding its way to its residents, a reader from New England writes that she is at once devastated to hear the news and torn about the plans she had made for a winter trip there this coming January.
Back in the summer, S.N. had booked a condo through a vacation by owner rental site. The idea of another frigid winter in New England made her long to take a break someplace warm. She'd hoped to visit Puerto Rico for many years and this was to be the winter she would do it.
But then the storm hit. By the time October rolled around, she assumed that the chances that the island would be ready for visitors would be slim. She'd already paid for the week at the condo, but she was well within the time allowed to cancel her reservation and receive a full refund.
The problem, S.N. found, was that after contacting the vacation by rental site and being told she needed to get the owner of the condo to return the money, she couldn't get a response from the owner.
"I figured he was without phone or internet," she writes. While she feels for what he and others are going through, she still would like to cancel, receive a refund and rebook for another time.
She writes that she plans to pursue getting a refund, but she writes to ask if it would be inappropriate to take a charitable deduction from her taxes if she never hears from the condo owner and doesn't receive her money back. "If I don't get the money back, I figure he can use it for whatever restorative work he might need to do," she writes.
While it might seem callous to pose such a question, it's a fair one for S.N. to ask since she'd saved for the trip for some time and if she can't get her money back, she would at least like to know if it could be considered a donation to the relief effort in Puerto Rico.
I am not a tax expert, but I posed the question of whether S.N. could take a charitable deduction to a good friend who is. "Unfortunately, not," she said. "In order to take a charitable deduction, the gift needs to be made to a qualified 501(c)3 organization." The owner of the condo in Puerto Rico is not a 501(c)3 organization, so no deduction.
The right thing for S.N. to do is to continue to try to receive a refund if she wants one. And the right thing for her to do if she wants to help with the relief efforts in Puerto Rico is to give directly to a charity working on those efforts. Guidestar.com offers a guide to a number of reputable charities. Consumer Reports has reported that organizations including Save the Children, Direct Relief, Hispanic Federation and World Vision have people on the ground there. If other readers care to help, now is a good time to do so.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.
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S.N. is naive about what constitutes a donation to a charity - or just desperately trying to find a way to recoup at least a part of the money she paid for the vacation rental by getting a tax deduction if she can't get a refund.
But S. N. should lay the groundwork for pursuing a claim against the owner of the property and the rental agency. She should write to both parties, making it clear that when conditions in Puerto Rico return to normal -and they will-, she expects a full refund of the money or a future week in the same or a comparable condominium. She should keep copies of both letters. She should send the letters by certified or registered mail, RRR, and keep the receipts for pursuit of reimbursement in cash or in comparable lodging. She should also follow up periodically by phone and mail.
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