Depreciation has both accounting and tax purposes, and the management of business assets, therefore, can affect both an organization’s financial statements and its tax liability. As an accounting function, depreciation allows for the planning and tracking of the value of an items of significant value to the business as they naturally deteriorate over the course of its expected use. This allows a business to more accurately assess the value of its assets, while also acknowledging that the value of a 2 year-old asset, such as a vehicle, is not the same as that of a new one. In its simplest form, an asset that is expected to last 5 years would lose 20% of its value each year, which would be reflected on the depreciation expense account.
Businesses can write-off certain expenses they incur on their taxes, which offsets income they earned in the same accounting period. For most common expenses, such as fuel, office supplies and utilities, the expense deductions should be taken in the same tax year as the expense was purchased (see cash and accrual accounting guide). But for some items, particularly higher cost capital expenses such as computers, manufacturing equipment and vehicles, the cost of the items can be spread across a number of years, and the corresponding expense deductions, as well.
What are Depreciable Assets
While most expenses incurred in the course of business operations are deductible, not all items a business owns are depreciable. In general, tangible assets owned by the company, those that are physical and hold value over time, can be depreciated, so long as they are used in the business. These are referred to as fixed assets.
Depreciable Asset Examples
- Equipment & Machinery
- Office furniture
Certain types of intangible property owned by the company, such as trademarks, can also be depreciated in some instances. Non-depreciable expenses often include items consumed during normal operations, such as paper, ink and office supplies. Inventory items are generally not depreciable, as they are accounted for separately.
- Assets with a life of less than one year, also called, Current Assets
- Accounts receivable
- Leased items, such as vehicles, because they are not owned by the business
Life Span – Depreciation Length
The length of time of the depreciation of fixed assets is also generally related to the anticipated life span of the asset. For instance, a computer might have a life of 3 years. Instead of writing off the entire asset in the first year of acquisition, the cost can be spread (following Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles, GAAP) evenly over the three years. When the asset has been fully-depreciated, it is considered to have only salvage value to the company. Since the company has fully accounted for the cost of the item, it can no longer have additional value on the company’s books. The life span and duration of deprecation starts when the asset is placed in service.
While the depreciation function anticipates a certain useable life span of the asset, certain factors can intervene. In the case of an asset being damaged, lost or stolen, the item can be removed from service with the items value being adjust appropriately to zero as a loss. Items may also be sold, traded or combined into new assets.
In a previous example, an asset expected to last five years was depreciated by 1/5 of its life each year. This is called Straight-Line depreciation and is the most common, especially for smaller businesses. However, there are other options available that vary in complexity but can have benefit to the business by speeding up depreciation or attaching depreciation to actual usage. Straight-line and Declining Balance are by far the most common, and are fully supported in most accounting systems, and BQE Software includes fixed asset reporting.
- Straight-Line: Asset depreciates equally each year of its life span
- Declining Balance: Asset is depreciated more in first few years to help recoup expenses more quickly
- Double Declining Balance: Additionally speeds up expenses on taxes, but reduces value to company more quickly
- Sum of Years’ Digits: Another method for speeding depreciation
- Units of Production: Most commonly used for manufacturing equipment with life spans that can be estimated in terms of usage. If an asset can only be used 2,000 times or for 2,000 hours, for example, the depreciation can be applied directly to its actual usage.
- Bonus Depreciation: The IRS, under direction of the Treasury Department, sometimes encourages businesses to invest in capital projects to stimulate the economy by allowing bonus depreciation. This provides the tax benefit of depreciating a larger amount of the asset value than with traditional methods. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act raised the bonus depreciation for specific property types to 100% through January 31, 2023. The CARES act, passed in response to the pandemic, expanded bonus depreciation to qualified improvement properties.
While short-term examples have been given, assets can actually be depreciated over up to a 39-year time frame. So the method chosen can have long-lasting effects on a business’ balance sheets and taxes.
For tax purposes, depreciation helps a business offset the cost of a piece of equipment (or other asset) by providing a deduction on their taxes over a number of years. In the simplest terms, if the depreciation of a business asset was $10,000 for the current tax year, when the business filed its taxes it would be allowed to deduct that $10,000 from their gross income for the year, thereby helping reduce the resulting taxes.
While lower-cost items are generally expensed in full on the business’ tax filings for that same year, Sec. 179 of the Internal Revenue Code allows up to $500,000 of the cost of large asset investments to be expensed in the same year, with the remaining balance depreciated over time. Bonus depreciation is also currently available (pending annual renewal in tax law) that allows some long-term business capital expenses to be deducted, with no limit.
Businesses have some leeway in determining the best depreciation strategy and methods, but there are some rules that apply for specific types of assets, some industries, in different countries, and whether the depreciation is for tax or accounting purposes. For example, a business that invests $100,000 for a piece of equipment for its factory may want to try to deduct the full cost immediately. However, from an accounting standpoint, that investment will carry the business manufacturing efforts for many years.
State and federal governments also sometimes enact special deduction and depreciation rules that are intended to spur or aid in economic growth and development in specific geographical areas or for specific industries.
Like many business operations and accounting functions, asset depreciation can be simple at its basics for very small businesses with few assets, and the built-in asset depreciation functions in cloud accounting systems like BQE have tools that make it simple to manage this function, automatically making appropriate journal entries to affected asset accounts and including that information on year-end financials. However, depending on the industry and as a business grows, its asset depreciation functions can grow exceptionally complex as businesses may end up managing hundreds or thousands of assets, each with varying depreciation schedules and tax considerations.
The accounting and tax rules for depreciation can overwhelming for growing businesses, which is why they should seek the advice of an accounting professional or tax pro, who can help them implement the most beneficial depreciation strategy, and keep them in compliance.