FAQ: What is the new de minimis safe harbor for tax expensing?

Businesses generally want to write off costs more quickly, to reduce their taxable income and their tax burden. One mechanism for accomplishing this is to deduct the costs of depreciable property rather than capitalizing them. Under Code Sec. 179, taxpayers can expense a prescribed amount of their costs for tangible depreciable property, even if the ordinary accounting treatment would be to capitalize the costs.

Code Sec. 179 applies primarily to personal property, but can apply to some real property. In recent years (through 2013), the expensing limit has been as high as $500,000 a year. However, for 2014, the expensing deduction limit is $25,000. (Congress could raise the limit for 2014 but has not done so.)

Because of the dramatic reduction in the Code Sec. 179 expensing limits, taxpayers may want to consider using the de minimis safe harbor in the final “repair” regulations as an alternative means of deducting costs that they would otherwise have to capitalize. The IRS issued final repair regulations in 2013 on the treatment of costs incurred with respect to depreciable property. The regulations are effective for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2014 and provide guidance on whether to expense or capitalize relevant costs.

The safe harbor

The de minimis safe harbor applies to smaller priced items used in the business. The safe harbor can apply in the following situation: a taxpayer with a $500 per item expensing policy buys 1,000 calculators for $100 each. If the taxpayer elects the safe harbor, the taxpayer can deduct the entire cost of the calculators in the year paid or incurred. The total deduction is $100,000, much greater than the $25,000 limit under Code Sec. 179 for 2014.

The safe harbor is an election, not an accounting method. It can be applied for any year (or not) as determined by the taxpayer. The taxpayer can make an election for 2014, for example. The deadline is the extended due date of the taxpayer’s original income tax return. An election statement must be attached to the return. The election is irrevocable.

Two alternatives

There are two alternative de minimis safe harbors. The primary safe harbor, for use by any taxpayer but primarily for larger entities, allows taxpayers to deduct items that cost $5,000 or less (per item or invoice). The items must be deductible under the taxpayer’s financial accounting procedures and in accordance with the company’s applicable financial statement (AFS). An AFS is a financial statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission or another government agency, or a certified audited financial statement. The taxpayer must also have a written accounting policy, put into effect at the beginning of the year, to treat the cost of the items as an expense.

Similar requirements apply to smaller business taxpayers who do not have an AFS, with the following two differences: the accounting policy does not have to be in writing; and the amount paid for the property may not exceed $500 per invoice or per item. If the cost of the items exceeds $500 per item, the taxpayer must capitalize the cost. The taxpayer cannot avoid the $500 (or $5,000) threshold by breaking an item into components whose separate cost is below the limit. For example, the taxpayer could not split the cost of a truck into separate components such as the engine, cab, and chassis.

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