Public Disclosure of Form 990

by Kara M. Curtis, CPA, Audit Manager

Posted on December 12, 2018

The IRS Form 990 is an informational tax return that provides an annual summary of the organization’s activities, governance and detailed financial information. Because the Form’s purpose is to provide public information, it makes sense that organizations must make their information open to the general public. So what are the disclosure rules for Form 990 filers?

What can the public request from my organization?

According to IRS guidelines, the following information must be made available for public inspection:

  • Letter of determination. This applies to all exempt organizations unless your exemption application was filed before July 15, 1987 and you did not have a copy of your exemption application on July 15, 1987.
  • Three most recent annual returns. This also including any schedules, attachments, or supporting documents.

In addition, copies of the returns must also be provided to anyone who requests them. If the request is made in person, the copy should be provided right away, however written requests can be filled within 30 days. Penalties exist for not providing copies in the required timeframe. Keep in mind, your organization is allowed to charge the requestor a reasonable fee for copying and can charge the actual cost for postage. According to the current Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) fee schedule, a reasonable copying fee is estimated at 20 cents per page. However, make sure to check the FOIA schedule for the current charge. A requestor can also go straight to the IRS to make this request, however the IRS has more time to fill this request (60 days) and may still charge a copying fee, so more timely request will probably go directly to your organization.

If your organization already makes the return widely available (such as posting on the internet), your organization does not have provide a copies to the public. Widely available could mean posting on your organization’s specific website or posting in an online database maintained by another organization. The online return must be in a format that presents the information exactly as the original document is presented (usually a pdf) and must allow the user to access, download, view, and print the posted document without paying a fee. Your organization should instruct users how to access these forms online. However, even if your return is posted online, the return still needs to be available for in-person inspection.

Does the public have access to my entire return?

No! Although Form 990 is required to be made public, not all parts of the return should be made completely public. The information on Schedule B is one of the areas that should be examined based on your type of organization.

For 501(c)(3) organizations: While all the information required on Schedule B must be reported to the IRS, your organization can (and should) mask or redact the names and addresses of any contributor reported on Schedule B.  For public disclosure, you should still disclose the amounts of contributions unless the disclosure of this information can reasonably be expected to identify any contributor.

For 501(a) organizations other than 501(c)(3): The IRS recently revised the reporting requirements of Schedule B for trade associations, labor unions, and social welfare organizations. Because the IRS does not have any use for the names and addresses of contributors for these affected organizations, the new policy was designed to be more cost effective and protect the confidential information of taxpayers. These organizations will no longer have to report the names and addresses of contributors to the public or the IRS effective for returns ending December 31, 2018. The change does not affect how the information will be reported to the public, only how it will be reported to the IRS. The contributor information should still be kept in the organization’s records and could be provided to the IRS upon request.

For private foundations & 527 political organizations: Private foundations and section 527 political organizations must provide all information (including names and addresses of contributors) to both the IRS and the public.

Some other general reminders:

Remember never to include social security numbers or bank account numbers of contributors! This information is not required and should never be included on your return.

It is also recommended to review your state requirements for public disclosure. Typically, you should not include your organization’s Schedule B in the attachments when filing state returns (unless specifically required), because the State could unintentionally make the schedule available for public inspection along with the rest of the Form 990 or 990-EZ.

For more information on disclosure requirements, visit the IRS website at