As a business owner, you can normally deduct business expenses in the year you incur them, but the rule is different for property you buy that is expected to last more than one year, such as buildings, machinery and furniture. You can't deduct the full cost right away. Instead, you depreciate them, or deduct the cost gradually over a number of years. Property that doesn't wear out, such as land, can't be depreciated.
For many kinds of business property, including computers and cars, special "accelerated depreciation" rules allow you to deduct a bigger share of the cost early on, assuming that an asset will decline in value more in the early years of use. Other assets, such as buildings, are depreciated evenly using a method known as straight-line depreciation.
Now that we have covered the basics, let's look at how you may be able to get the most bang for your buck tax-wise out of your business assets.
A special rule known as "expensing" lets small businesses write off the entire cost of certain depreciable assets in the year they are purchased.
In other words, you get to treat the cost as a business expense (hence "expensing"), such as salary paid or utilities rather than an asset that has to be depreciated over a number of years. Property that qualifies for this tax break includes machinery, tools, furniture, fixtures, computers, software and vehicles. (This special rule often goes by the alias "the Section 179 deduction" to give homage to the section of the tax law that allows it.)
This deduction is limited in several ways:
- Dollar limit. For assets placed in service in 2012, you can take a maximum expensing deduction of $500,000 —a higher-than-normal level approved by Congress to help the struggling economy.
- Investment limit. As a way to focus this tax break on smaller businesses, firms whose investment in new property exceeds a threshold amount gradually lose the right to expensing. For 2012, the investment threshold is $2,000,000. For example, if you purchased $2,020,000 of otherwise eligible equipment in 2009, you can't expense more than $480,000 ($500,000 expensing maximum minus the excess investment of $20,000).
- Taxable income limit. Your total first-year expensing deduction cannot exceed your business's taxable income. Say, for example, that you bought $40,000 of property eligible for expensing in 2012, but your firm's taxable income before taking expensing into account is just $20,000. That means your expensing deduction is limited to $20,000; you can carry over the disallowed $20,000 to 2012 and claim an expensing deduction then, assuming you have sufficient business income.
Depreciation and expensing for that car or truck you use for business is a little trickier than for other types of business assets because IRS has special rules for vehicles.
No matter how much you pay, the first-year write-off for a new (not used) passenger car put to use for business in 2012 is capped at $11,160. For used cars, the first-year cap is just $3,160. (These figures assume 100% business use.)
If you sell business assets during the year, the deal may generate a taxable gain or a deductible loss. There also may be tax consequences if business property is exchanged, destroyed, stolen, abandoned or condemned during the year.
If you're selling or exchanging property, your gain or loss is figured by calculating the difference between the amount you receive for the asset and its adjusted basis. The adjusted basis of the property is its original cost, minus any depreciation and expensing deduction claimed.
Generally, assets you own that are for personal use or held for investment are capital assets, and disposing of them generates capital gains or losses. But most of the assets you use in the normal course of business, including land and depreciable property, are treated as noncapital assets. They are called "Section 1231 property," after the section of the tax code that gives them favorable tax treatment, as explained below.
Types of assets that get this favorable treatment must be owned for more than one year, and include plant and equipment, timber, coal, iron ore and certain livestock. Section 1231 gains and losses are reported on Form 4797: Sales of Business Property.
To determine the tax treatment, combine all your Section 1231 gains and losses for the year. If you end up with a net loss, that is treated as an ordinary loss and can be used to offset your ordinary income. If the result is a net gain, the gain is generally is treated as long-term capital gain, which is taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income. But the lower rate may not apply to all of your net gain.
Tax rules let the IRS recapture some of the depreciation deductions you have taken since you owned the asset. The recapture rules differ for real estate and equipment.
If you sell depreciable equipment at a gain, you must recapture either the depreciation and expensing deductions claimed on the asset, or the total gain, whichever is less. This recapture amount is then taxed as ordinary income, not as Section 1231 gain.
Exchanges. You can defer the gain on an asset disposition by trading your asset for a similar piece of replacement property. This is known as a like-kind exchange. The new property must be identified within 45 days and you must receive it within 180 days of disposing of the old asset. You don't pay tax in the year in which the exchange occurs. Instead, you reduce the tax basis of the replacement asset you acquire by the gain you deferred on the trade of the old asset. When you eventually sell the replacement asset, the amount of gain will be larger or the loss will be smaller based on the exchange.
Installment sales. You will not have to report all of the gain on the sale of an asset at one time if your buyer pays you in installments, and you receive at least one payment after the year in which the sale occurs. If you receive payments equally over three years, for example, one-third of the profit would be taxable each year.
TurboTax Home & Business and TurboTax Business will help you get the best tax treatment for your business assets.
Updated for tax year 2009