Legal tip: gift cards

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- As we've written before, gifts can be a tricky issue between government employees. How much can they cost? Who can give them? When is it appropriate to give gifts in the office setting? The subject today is: gift cards.

You may remember that there is a de minimis gift exception, which means gifts under $20 are usually OK in any circumstances. This same rule, however, bars gifts of cash altogether, including amounts under $20. A recent article from the Office of Government Ethics clarified the concept of gift cards.

Bottom line: prepaid gift cards in any amount cannot be given as gifts. A prepaid gift card is also referred to as a "general-use" gift card. These are the cards that may be redeemed at multiple, unaffiliated merchants or service providers and essentially function as bank-issued debit cards. A prepaid, general-use gift card functions just like cash for all intents and purposes. For that reason, they cannot be given or accepted as gifts.

A prepaid, general-use gift card is different than a store gift card; for example, a "Bed, Bath, & Beyond" gift card that may only be used at that store. Those store gift cards may be accepted when under $20. Mall gift cards and online marketplace gift cards (such as Amazon.com) are also considered store gift cards and may be accepted as gifts.