The U.S. government committed $350 million to help the victims of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and it's bending over backwards to encourage procrastinators to make contributions of their own.

The good news is that as long as you donate cash to a qualified tsunami relief fund by Jan. 31, you can deduct that donation on your 2004 tax return.

See, it does pay to be charitable. Though if you're thinking of donating that jalopy in your driveway, be sure you're following the rules, or you'll just end up with more headaches than your old car gives you.

And keep in mind, if you don't itemize your deductions on your tax return, you don't get a thing for your goodwill. So pat yourself on the back and move on.

Tsunami Relief

To take advantage of the unusual deadline extension, make sure your check is dated on or before Jan. 31, 2005. If you're mailing it, be sure the envelope is postmarked by that date as well. And if you use your charge card, be sure the transaction goes through before midnight on Jan. 31.

Of course, you don't have to take that deduction on your 2004 return. It's just an option. You just can't take it twice. So take the time to figure out whether your 2004 or 2005 tax return would benefit most from your contribution.

Your donation is deductible only if you give to a qualified tsunami fund. Check out the USAID site and the USA Freedom Corps site for a list of acceptable organizations. And remember, some associations, such as churches or governments, are probably qualified even though they are not listed on either of these sites.

Big note: Donations to most foreign charities are not tax-deductible. "That's mainly because we can't police the charity," says Bill Fleming, director of personal financial services at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hartford, Conn. So stick to American relief funds.

Car Donations

There is so much noise coming out of the IRS office about car donations that you've got to wonder if one of the rulemakers at the tax agency ever got stuck with a lemon.

Either way, it's a sore spot.

When you donate a car to a charitable organization, in general, you can deduct the "blue book" or fair-market value of the car. The IRS gets concerned when that blue-book value is below $5,000. In that case, it is up to the taxpayer to determine the car's worth, and that opens the door to fudging.

If the value of the car is $5,000 or more, you'll need a written appraisal, so there's generally less leeway.

A bigger issue is that most charities sell donated cars to wholesalers, so they're not getting the blue-book value of your car, notes Fleming. So in many instances, you're taking a bigger deduction than the value of your donation.

Even worse, while the blue-book value of a 1995 two-door Jeep Cherokee Sport lists for around $2,000, the one sitting in your driveway may not have any brakes left. So your car is not really in blue-book condition. But odds are good that you'll take the blue-book deduction anyway.

So know for 2004 that if the IRS sees "car donation" anywhere on your tax return, that will raise a serious red flag, and you'd better have supporting documentation.

For 2005, the rules now say that your deduction must equal the money the charity made selling your car. That means the charity has to report back to you what it got for your donation. If it decides to keep and use your car, then you can take the blue-book value. Either way, the charitable organization must inform you of its intentions.

While this new rule may appease the IRS, it requires charities to do unwanted record-keeping. "We suspect that charities are not going to want the cars anymore," says Fleming. So donate while you still can.

Sweet Charity, Sour Taste

While it may make you feel great to be kind-hearted, the IRS will be sure to steal that warm, fuzzy feeling if you don't have your receipts.

For cash contributions of less than $250, your canceled check or charge-card statement will work if you didn't get an acknowledgement letter from the organization noting your generosity.

To claim a contribution of $250 or more in cash, you need a "thank you" note from the charity, and it has to say that "no goods or services were received in exchange for your contribution." If it doesn't, call the organization and ask for it. Otherwise your tax preparer will, and that just wastes time.

For noncash donations, you need a receipt from the organization noting the date and description of the property donated. Of course, if you just dropped off a bag of old clothes at an unattended Salvation Army bin, you most likely won't get a receipt. Then just keep good records. Be sure to document when and where you dropped the goods, what you donated, the fair-market value and the original cost.

For donated items worth more than $500, see Form 8283 -- Noncash Charitable Contributions for more details.

And when tallying your charitable contributions, do not overlook contributions you made through your payroll deductions, such as those to the United Way. Check your W-2 for that information.

So go ahead, be charitable. Just be organized and prepared as well, so the IRS doesn't give you a headache.