When there’s a question of the benefit that tangible or intangible assets provide businesses, there are many factors that must be weighed to make internal accounting procedures effective. Businesses must determine how the cost of business assets can be expensed each year over the asset’s lifespan. Looking at how amortization and depreciation work, implementing both processes depend on the type of asset being expensed. There are noticeable differences for each method, including how salvage value is considered, whether accelerated expensing is allowed, and how each type is expressed on financial statements.
Amortization is an accounting practice of spreading the cost of an intangible asset over its useful life. Examples of intangible assets, according to the Internal Revenue Service’s “Section 197 Intangibles,” include goodwill, intellectual property such as trademarks, patents, and government or agency-granted permits or licenses. These are all assets that must be amortized over 15 years.
Based on IRS regulations, when it comes to determining how an asset is expensed over its useful life, amortization is most similar to the straight-line basis method of depreciation.
It’s important to note that the timeframe of amortization is subject to interpretation. Examples, according to the IRS, include a 36-month amortization timeline for computer software because it’s not categorized as an asset under the same IRS Section. Other examples not mandated to be amortized under a 15-year time frame include interests in land, business partnerships, financial contracts (such as interest rate swaps), or the creation of media.
One of the main differences when it comes to depreciation is that it focuses on tangible or fixed assets and requires a certain percentage of its useful life to be allocated each year. Examples of assets that can be expensed include trucks for service calls, computers, printers, equipment for production, etc. Another important difference is that the asset’s salvage value is deducted from the asset’s starting cost. The remaining balance (original cost – salvage cost) determines annual expensing amounts, which are divided by the asset’s years of useful life.
Along with the above method of depreciation, also called the “Straight-Line Method,” there are other ways depreciation can determine how much is expensed annually and over the asset’s useful life. For example, Declining Balance or Double Declining Balance methods are alternate ways businesses can depreciate their assets – some frontload the amounts to take advantage of accounting/tax rules to reduce their tax liabilities. Another way is to depreciate via Units of Production. This method pro-rates the level of an asset’s expected use within a particular accounting period, on a per-unit basis, to determine how much the company can expense during a particular accounting timeframe.
When it comes to accounting for goodwill, according to a November 2020 electronic survey of CFA charter holders by the CFA Institute, respondents found that investors who see amortization used by companies still require investors’ due diligence. Sixty-one percent of respondents said there need to be alternate ways to figure out if management is effective or not, and 63 percent said that amortization “distorts financial metrics.”
When it comes to understanding and navigating the differences between amortization and depreciation, business owners and investors need to be well-versed in performing due diligence to ensure compliance.
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