Abandon everything but tax savings

Proper disposal of unused, unneeded or unwanted assets

-By Mark Battersby-

The IRS has long provided guidance to rural building businesses for capitalizing and depreciating their business property. Largely lost in even the most recent regulatory guidance however, are the proper procedures—and deductions—for disposing of any unused, unneeded or unwanted business assets or property.

Every once in a while one or more items of business property may no longer be useful: some old equipment that broke down for the very last time or a truck that’s ready for a trade-in but you wouldn’t be able to get a dollar for it. When this happens, the building business may claim an abandonment loss on its income tax return.

Of course, in order for the IRS to accept a bona fide abandonment of any business asset, there must be an actual intent to abandon it. There must also be an “overt” act to abandon the asset. Not too surprisingly, this two-pronged test can prove difficult.

Under the IRS’s guidelines, a builder or contractor cannot merely set aside a piece of equipment and call it abandoned—the IRS might see a potential for future use.

Items other than vehicles and equipment can also qualify for an abandonment loss deduction. It is possible to claim an abandonment loss for intangible assets such as goodwill.

According to the tax laws, a building business abandons property when it voluntarily and permanently gives up possession and use of the property with the intention of ending ownership but without passing it on to anyone else. The item must be disposed of, destroyed, donated to charity or converted to personal use.

While abandonment is generally not treated as a sale or exchange of the property, if money does change hands, such as with a trade-in, and if the amount realized (if any) is more than the property’s adjusted basis, there is a gain. If the adjusted basis or book value is more than the amount realized (if any), then a loss results. Naturally, a loss from the abandonment of business or investment property is deductible as a loss.

What’s more, a loss from the abandonment of business or investment property that is not treated as a sale or exchange is generally an ordinary loss. And ordinary losses are usually more beneficial than capital losses that have limited deductibility.

A building business that consists of several “components,” such as subsidiaries, profit centers, branches or departments, must report the disposition or the discontinued use of any component that meets two general conditions:

  • The component’s operation and cash flows have been or will be eliminated as a result of the disposal.
  • The business will not have any significant continued involvement in the component’s operations after the disposal.

The defining characteristic of an intangible asset is the lack of physical existence. Nevertheless, assets such as good will, patents, copyrights, trademarks, brands, franchises, and similar items contribute to the earnings capability of some businesses.

Although intangible assets cannot be physically abandoned, the courts have concluded that they may be treated as abandoned when a taxpayer demonstrates its intention to abandon the property coupled with an “act” of abandonment. Mere worthlessness is not enough, the building business must have evidence to support the fact that the intangible asset has been abandoned or sold.

If an intangible asset was acquired, the rules label it a Section 197 intangible asset and deny an abandonment deduction if other intangible assets acquired at the same time are retained. Thus, if multiple intangibles were valued and recorded when originally purchased, the building business cannot deduct an abandonment loss for only one asset in the group. Instead, the tax rules require the basis or book value of the remaining Section 197 intangibles be increased by the basis remaining in the abandoned asset.

Many builders and contractors continue to hold and use property that they should and eventually will dispose of. Fortunately, there are other options for getting rid of long-lived business property, equipment and assets. In addition to abandonment, trade-ins, or what lawmakers call an exchange, for a similar productive asset, or distribution to the operation’s owners, shareholders or key employees in a spin-off, are alternatives.

Any long-lived asset the building business will abandon is considered disposed of when the business stops using it. A temporarily idle asset is not accounted for as abandoned. If a builder or contractor plans to abandon a long-lived asset before its estimated useful life, it will treat the asset as held and used, test it for impairment and revise depreciation estimates.

A long-lived asset that is to be distributed to the operation’s owners or exchanged for a similar productive asset is considered disposed of when it is actually distributed or exchanged. Some business assets are considered to have an indefinite life and cannot be amortized or written-off. Instead, they are periodically evaluated for diminished value or “impairment.”

When an asset is being held and used, any test for recoverability is based on using the asset for its remaining useful life and assuming that disposal will not occur. If the carrying amount or basis exceeds its market value at the time of disposal, the builder or contractor is required to recognize an impairment loss. In other words, when the basis, book value or carrying amount of any long-lived business asset (or group of assets) is not recoverable from expected future cash flows, an impairment has occurred. The builder or contractor no longer expects to be able to generate a return from the asset sufficient to recapture its net book value. A loss is then recognized for the amount needed to reduce the asset to its fair value.

Since the asset remains in service, albeit with a lower book value, that downwardly revised carrying value will be depreciated over any remaining estimated life or used to determine an eventual abandonment loss.

How does any builder or contractor know when impairment occurs? Or better yet, how can that impairment be measured? Obviously, subjective assessments are necessary. Consideration of factors such as: a significant decrease in market value; a physical condition has declined unexpectedly; the asset is no longer used as intended; legal or regulatory issues have impeded the asset; or the business seems threatened by an asset’s performance, are all indicators of impairment.

Over time the productive assets used in a building business may no longer be needed and the decision made to dispose of those assets. That disposal may occur by abandonment, sale, or exchange and involve items other than vehicles and equipment, all of which may be subject to abandonment and thus, a loss from abandonment.

Even abandonment of items other than vehicles, equipment or property, tangible or intangible, is deductible as a loss. A loss from an abandonment of property, other than a sale or exchange, is generally an ordinary loss. For the IRS to judge a bona fide abandonment, the building business must show intent to abandon the asset, and must overtly act to abandon it.

Because of the complexity of the rules and the necessity to prove an actual act of abandonment, professional assistance is strongly recommended RB


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