Optimizing Luxury-Auto Deductions

The ultimate goal is to maximize the total automobile deduction while minimizing the use of IRC section 179 expense.
BY STEVEN C. DILLEY AND FRED JACOBS

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
DEPRECIATION OF LUXURY CARS requires careful analysis due to recent tax law changes.

OPTIMIZATION OF LUXURY-VEHICLE DEPRECIATION demands thoughtful analysis of the IRC section 179 expense allowance, the 30% or 50% additional depreciation allowance and regular depreciation.

THE ULTIMATE GOAL is to maximize the total auto deduction and minimize the use of the section 179 expense allowance so that the allowance is available for use on other qualified purchases.

FOR A $17,000 NEW PASSENGER CAR, some of the section 179 allowance would have to be used to reach the first-year luxury-car depreciation limitation.

FOR A $19,000 NEW PASSENGER AUTO, none of the section 179 allowance would have to be used to reach the first-year luxury-automobile depreciation limitation.

THE PURCHASE OF MULTIPLE VEHICLES requires applying the luxury-vehicle limits to each vehicle individually. If the vehicles have different prices, different amounts of section 179 expense will apply for each one.

STEVEN C. DILLEY, CPA, PhD, JD, is a professor of accounting at Michigan State University, East Lansing. He also is a nationally recognized lecturer on tax issues relevant to local practitioners and members in industry. His e-mail is dilleys@msu.edu . FRED JACOBS, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor of accounting at Michigan State University. His e-mail is jacobs@msu.edu .

ecent tax changes have affected taxpayers’ options for depreciating luxury automobiles. As a result CPAs will find the process for such depreciation more complex, requiring careful and thoughtful analysis. There now are six categories of luxury cars, each with different first-year depreciation limitations that change annually. This article provides some insights and a methodology CPAs can use to help clients and employers maximize their business luxury-vehicle deductions.

Used Vs . New
The amount of depreciation allowable per year on a luxury automobile differs substantially for used vs. new cars.

RULES OF THE ROAD
The luxury-automobile depreciation rules, as modified by the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act of 2002, the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 and revenue procedures 2003-75 and 2004-20, apply to vehicles that are used as a means for transportation on public roads, weigh 6,000 pounds or less and are not used to transport persons for hire.

Vehicles that have business use but do not meet these criteria are not subject to the depreciation limits imposed on luxury autos, but instead are depreciated according to the rules for equipment in general. A Hummer, for example, is not affected by the luxury-automobile rules because it is too heavy, so if it is used solely for business purposes, up to $100,000 of its total cost can be expensed due to IRC section 179’s immediate expensing rules. Similarly, up to $100,000 of the cost of a taxicab, a hearse or a forklift truck can be expensed in the first year since these vehicles do not meet the luxury-car criteria.

Luxury-vehicle classifications. Neither the 2002 nor the 2003 tax acts changed the first-year depreciation limit for used luxury cars. That limit is inflation-adjusted and was set by the IRS at $2,960 for 2004 (it was $3,060 for 2002 and 2003). The 2002 act increased the maximum first-year depreciation for only new cars; the 2003 act further increased this amount. Then revenue procedure 2004-20 (for vehicles placed in service in 2004) and revenue procedure 2003-75 (for vehicles placed in service in 2003) divided nonelectric vehicles into two categories: passenger vehicles, and trucks and vans on a truck chassis. For trucks and vans on a truck chassis, $300 was added to the passenger vehicle first-year deduction limit. Consequently, there now are six categories of luxury vehicles:

Used passenger cars.
Used trucks and vans on a truck chassis.
New passenger cars.
New trucks and vans on a truck chassis.
Used electric cars.
New electric cars.

The date a car is placed into service determines which rule applies. Exhibit 1 , below, summarizes the luxury-vehicle depreciation limitations for 2003 and 2004.

Exhibit 1 : Depreciation Limitations for Luxury Vehicles Placed in Service During 2004* and 2003
Tax year Used passenger autos New passenger autos Used trucks and used vans on a truck chassis New trucks and new vans on a truck chassis Used electric autos New electric autos
Placed in service during 2004
1 $2,960 $10,610 $3,260 $10,910 $ 8,880 $31,830
2 4,800 4,800 5,300 5,300 14,300 14,300
3 2,850 2,850 3,150 3,150 8,550 8,550
4, 5,… 1,675 1,675 1,875 1,875 5,125 5,125
Placed in service after May 5, 2003, and before January 1, 2004
1 $3,060 $10,710 $3,360 $11,010 $9,080 $32,030
2 4,900 4,900 5,400 5,400 14,600 14,600
3 2,950 2,950 3,250 3,250 8,750 8,750
4, 5,… 1,775 1,775 1,975 1,975 5,225 5,225
Placed in service after December 31, 2002, and before May 6, 2003
1 $3,060 $7,660 $3,360 $7,960 $9,080 $22,880
2 4,900 4,900 5,400 5,400 14,600 14,600
3 2,950 2,950 3,250 3,250 8,750 8,750
4, 5,… 1,775 1,775 1,975 1,975 5,225 5,225

* Revenue procedure 2004-20 (2004-13 IRB 642, 03/26/04).
† Revenue procedure 2003-75 (2003-45 IRB 1018, 10/02/03).

Rules for 2004. For the first time in many years, the luxury-vehicle depreciation annual limits went down in 2004, from a base amount of $3,060 in 2003 and earlier years to $2,960 in 2004. This reduction lowered the cost of a vehicle that is affected by the luxury-car rules. For instance, since a vehicle has a five-year tax life, the first-year regular depreciation rate (from IRS tables) is 0.2. Dividing that into $2,960 shows that a vehicle costing as little as $14,800 is subject to luxury-vehicle rules [$2,960 divided by 0.2]. The second- and later-years depreciation limits also are reduced because of anomalies in how the inflation adjustment (using 1988 as a base) is calculated. As a result of the 2003 tax act, the $2,960 base amount (or $3,260 base amount for a truck or van on a truck chassis) is increased by $7,650 if the vehicle is new (see “ Definition of New Vehicle ”). The 2004 first-year limits are $10,610 for new passenger cars, $10,910 for new trucks and vans on a truck chassis and $31,830 for new electric cars.

Definition of New Vehicle

A vehicle is “new” when its original use for its intended purpose begins with the taxpayer. Thus, a vehicle purchased from a dealer that has a minor amount of mileage on it because it was used as a demonstrator still is new, but a vehicle that was leased, returned to the dealer after the lease expired, and then purchased by the taxpayer is not new. In the latter case, only the leasing company was eligible to treat the vehicle as new. See regulations section 1.168(k)-T(b)(3).

Another provision of the 2003 act—the 50% additional depreciation allowance (ADA)—also affected depreciation on new cars. For vehicles placed in service after May 5, 2003, the owner could deduct 50% of the cost in the first year. Also, the IRC section 179 immediate-expense election generally is available for automobiles used more than 50% for business. For cars (and most other personal property) the 2003 act also raised the section 179 expense annual limit to $100,000 (from $25,000) for property placed in service after December 31, 2002. Finally, taxpayers can take regular depreciation on the car. However, the total of these three deductions (section 179 expense, 50% ADA and regular depreciation) cannot exceed the first-year limit for that category of luxury vehicle.

2003 limitations. For new vehicles acquired after September 10, 2001, and before May 6, 2003, the 2002 act increased the maximum first-year depreciation by $4,600. Thus, the first-year depreciation limitation is $7,660 ($3,060 + $4,600) for new passenger vehicles; for a truck or van on a truck chassis acquired in 2003 but before May 6, the maximum first-year depreciation is $7,960.

Another provision of the 2002 act—the 30% ADA—also affected depreciation of new cars: For vehicles placed in service after September 10, 2001, and before May 6, 2003, the owner could deduct 30% of the cost in the first year. In addition the IRC section 179 immediate-expense election generally is available for cars used more than 50% for business. Taxpayers also can take regular depreciation on the car. And once again, the total of these three deductions (section 179 expense, 30% ADA and regular depreciation) cannot exceed the first-year limit for that category of luxury auto.

Luxury vehicles acquired after May 5, 2003, and before 2004 had a first-year depreciation limit of $10,710 ($3,060 + $7,650) for new passenger cars and $11,010 ($3,060 + $7,650 + $300) for new trucks and vans on a truck chassis because the 2003 act increased the luxury-vehicle deduction limit by $7,650 rather than by $4,600.

In addition the 30% ADA became a 50% ADA for new personal property placed in service after May 5, 2003. For cars (and most other personal property) the 2003 act also raised the section 179 expense annual limit to $100,000 for property placed in service after December 31, 2002; the previous maximum was $25,000. Vehicles also are eligible for regular depreciation. However, the total of these three deductions (section 179 expense, 50% ADA and regular depreciation) cannot exceed the first-year limit for that category of luxury vehicle.

THE DEDUCTION OPTIMIZATION PROBLEM
Under the revised depreciation rules in the 2002 and 2003 acts, taxpayers may depreciate new personal property three ways in the first year, as described above. However, the deductions must be taken in the following order:

  1. Section 179 expense allowance (if elected).
  2. The 30% or 50% ADA, based on the cost of the auto reduced by the amount of section 179 expense allowance.
  3. Regular depreciation, based on the cost of the auto reduced by both section 179 expense allowance and the 30% or 50% ADA.

The taxpayer’s first objective should be to use as little of section 179 expense as possible on qualified personal property so it is available for other qualified purchases; if it is not needed to reach the first-year depreciation maximum, it is wasted here. The goal is to maximize the total automobile deduction while minimizing the use of section 179 expense. This is not easily achieved because of the required order of the deductions and the reduced cost bases used in the calculations.

For a used car with a maximum deduction of $2,960, the problem doesn’t really exist since an auto costing as little as $14,800 will generate regular modified accelerated cost recovery system (MACRS) depreciation equal to the $2,960 deduction limit (0.2 3 $14,800), and no section 179 expense is necessary. But with a new vehicle, section 179 expense may be needed to reach the $10,610 or $10,910 maximum deduction.

To illustrate the nature of the problem, assume Mary buys a new car for $17,000 on March 10, 2004. If she does not elect section 179 expense, the 50% ADA plus regular depreciation is only $10,200—less than the $10,610 maximum:

50% ADA: $17,000 x 50% $8,500
Regular depreciation: 20% x ($17,000 – $8,500) 1,700
Total deduction $10,200

This, of course, is not optimal since Mary has not reached the maximum luxury-auto deduction.

If a taxpayer elects section 179 expense, he or she easily could reach the maximum deduction by using either $10,610 or $10,910 of the section 179 expense allowance (assuming either amount is available). But this approach doesn’t take advantage of the 50% ADA and regular depreciation and, therefore, uses too much section 179 expense. In response to Mary’s situation, CPAs might try taking $3,000 of section 179 expense, hoping the 50% ADA and regular depreciation will reach the $10,610 limit. Since the section 179 expense reduces the depreciation base for the 50% ADA calculation, and both the section 179 expense and the 50% ADA reduce the base for the regular depreciation calculation, the total deduction is $11,400 (limited to $10,610):

Section 179 expense $3,000
50% ADA: ($17,000 – $3,000) x 50% 7,000
Regular depreciation: 20% x ($17,000 – $3,000 – $7,000) 1,400
Total deduction $11,400

Under this scenario, Mary reaches the maximum deduction but does not need the full $3,000 of section 179 expense to do so—as a result, some of it is wasted. The optimal choice is to elect $1,026 of section 179 expense, as discussed below.

Exhibit 2 : Optimal First-Year Depreciation Deductions in 2004—Used Vehicles*
Cost Optimal section
179 expense
Depreciation
base
Optimal regular
depreciation
Total
depreciation
Auto
$7,000 $1,950 $5,050 $1,010 $2,960
9,000 1,450 7,550 1,510 2,960
11,000 950 10,050 2.010 2,960
13,000 450 12,550 2,510 2,960
$14,800 0 14,800 2,960 2,960
Truck or van on truck chassis
$7,000 $2,325 $4,675 $935 $3,260
9,000 1,825 7,175 1,435 3,260
11,000 1,325 9,675 1,935 3,260
13,000 825 12,175 2,435 3,260
15,000 325 14,675 2,935 3,260
$16,300 0 16,300 3,260 3,260

* Since this table is not exhaustive, the spreadsheet used to generate it is available from the authors on request.

OPTIMUM DEDUCTION COMPONENTS
Exhibit 2 , above, and Exhibit 3 , below, provide the optimal first-year amounts of section 179 expense, 50% ADA and regular depreciation for used and new vehicles with a variety of acquisition costs. CPAs can see in exhibit 3 that the optimal section 179 expense for a new $17,000 passenger automobile is $1,026. Then, $7,987 of 50% ADA and $1,597 of regular depreciation bring the total depreciation to the $10,610 maximum.

Exhibit 3 : Optimal First-Year Depreciation Deductions in 2004—New Vehicles*
Cost Optimal
section 179
expense
50% ADA
base
Optimal
50% ADA
Regular
depreciation
base
Optimal
regular
depreciation
Total
depreciation
Auto
$11,000 $10,026 $974 $487 $487 $97 $10,610
13,000 7,026 5,974 2,987 2,987 597 10,610
15,000 4,026 10,974 5,487 5,487 1,097 10,610
17,000 1,026 15,974 7,987 7,987 1,597 10,610
$17,683 0 17,683 8,842 8,842 1,768 10,610
Truck or van on truck chassis
$11,000 $10,776 $225 $113 $113 $23 $10,910
13,000 7,775 5,225 2,613 2,613 523 10,910
15,000 4,775 10,225 5,113 5,113 1,023 10,910
17,000 1,775 15,225 7,613 7,613 1,523 10,910
$18,183

0

18,183

9,092

9,092

1,818

10,910

* Since this table is not exhaustive, the spreadsheet used to generate it is available from the authors on request.

The IRS doesn’t help taxpayers optimize the deduction in this situation: A worksheet in the 2003 form 4562 instructions requires taxpayers to input an amount for the section 179 expense with no guidance on how to select that figure. CPAs using commercially available tax software programs should be aware that at least some incorporate the IRS worksheet as is into their software. Exhibit 4 contains schematics that CPAs can use to determine when and how to use the three components of the first-year luxury-vehicle deduction. The schematics parallel exhibits 2 and 3 , using the cost of the vehicle as the critical factor for deciding how to optimize across the three deduction components. Using schematic C in exhibit 4 with a $17,000 new passenger car, we see that if section 179 was available (for example, some portion of the $100,000 annual limit remains and the taxpayer wants to use it for a luxury vehicle), some of the section 179 expense would have to be used to reach the $10,610 first-year depreciation limit. On the other hand, if the new car cost $19,000, the schematic tells us no section 179 expense would be needed to reach the limit; 50% ADA and regular depreciation would be enough.


RESOURCES

CPE
AICPA’s Individual Income Tax Returns Workshop, a self-study course (# 735196PBJA).

AICPA’s Corporate Income Tax Returns Workshop, a self-study course (# 735197PBJA).

For more information or to place an order, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Other Resources
“Optimum Section 179 Amount Spreadsheet” by Steven C. Dilley ( dilleys@msu.edu ) and Fred Jacobs ( jacobs@msu.edu ): an Excel spreadsheet developed by the authors for use in determining the optimal section 179 expense deduction.

Why should the use of IRC section 179 be avoided? It should be avoided for several reasons. First, if depreciable equipment other than luxury vehicles was purchased during the year and that equipment has a longer life than that of the vehicles, depreciation generally will be maximized by using the immediate-expense election on the longer lived assets first. Second, section 179 has some complicated “recapture” provisions that require recalculation of the section 179 expense if the business usage drops to 50% or less. This especially can be a problem for sole proprietors. Sole proprietors must use the actual percentage of business use for their vehicles, whereas employers treat personal use of the employer-owned vehicle as additional wages to the employee and, therefore, have 100% business use of the vehicle for depreciation purposes. Since the actual business-use percentage can vary from year to year, sole proprietors are more likely to be hit with a required recapture.

Multiple car purchases. If the taxpayer buys two or more luxury cars, it is important to recognize that section 179 expense is limited to $100,000 for 2003 and later. CPAs should help taxpayers find the optimal section 179 expense for one vehicle at a time until all of the section 179 expense is used up. If the vehicles have different prices, different amounts of section 179 expense will apply for each one.

PERCENTAGE OF BUSINESS USE
The discussion above assumed 100% business use of the auto in question. If the employer owns the vehicle, the business-use percentage will be 100% after the employee has been reimbursed for any personal use of the auto or the employer has treated it as additional wages. If the car is owned by a sole proprietor or an employee, CPAs must reduce the luxury-car depreciation maximum by the personal-use percentage. Consequently, CPAs must adjust the earlier computations and the table information for the business-use percentage. If the business-use percentage is 50% or less, neither the section 179 expense nor the 50% or 30% ADA is available.

PRACTICAL TIPS TO REMEMBER

Remember that luxury vehicles come in six categories: new—passenger autos, trucks and vans on a truck chassis, and electric vehicles; and used—passenger autos, trucks and vans on a truck chassis, and electric vehicles.

Be aware that a “luxury car” can be a vehicle costing as little as $14,800.

Alert employers or clients that they may use both the standard-mileage method (37.5 cents a mile) and the luxury-auto limits. The employer may use the standard-mileage method to reimburse employees for use of their vehicles on the employer’s business and the employer could use the luxury-auto rules to depreciate cars it owns.

Advise a client or employer that leasing may not be as advantageous as it has been since the first-year depreciation limits now are considerably greater for new vehicles. Leasing a car can be roughly equated to depreciating an auto by comparing the annual lease payments with the annual depreciation deductions.

STANDARD MILEAGE AND LEASING VS. BUYING
Historically, since the luxury-auto first-year depreciation deduction was quite low, the standard-mileage method (37.5 cents a mile for 2004) for purchased automobiles was a popular alternative to regular MACRS depreciation. For new autos, however, this method now is much less attractive because it takes more miles to reach the new depreciation limits. For a new passenger car purchased in 2004, 28,293 miles [$10,610 divided by $0.375] must be for business use in order for the standard-mileage-deduction method to reach the depreciation limit; for a new truck or van on a truck chassis, the number of miles must be 29,093 [$10,910 divided by $0.375].

For a used car, it may still be more advantageous to use the standard-mileage method for determining the depreciation deduction. For a used passenger auto, taxpayers will reach the deduction limit with the standard-mileage method if they drive a mere 7,893 business miles [$2,960 divided by $0.375]. It should be noted, however, that these numerical comparisons ignore other disadvantages of the standard-mileage method: in particular, the inability to deduct operating costs such as gas, oil changes, repairs, insurance and interest expense.

Leasing vs. buying. Leasing a new auto instead of buying also becomes less attractive because the lease payments will have to be quite large in order to reach the new luxury-auto, first-year depreciation limits. For new vehicles the equivalent of the deduction limit will be reached only if the monthly lease payments are at least $884 for passenger autos [$10,610 divided by 12] and $909 for trucks and vans on a truck chassis [$10,910 divided by 12].

THE RIGHT DIRECTION
With the enactment of the 50% ADA for new depreciable equipment and the increase in the luxury-auto depreciation limit, the optimal approach for luxury-car business deductions has become less clear and less straightforward. This article has explained the nature of the complexities and their potential impact on a variety of related decisions. It’s up to CPAs to apply them to specific situations and help clients or employers make the right decision.

Exhibit 4 : First-Year Section 179 Expense, 50% ADA* and Regular MACRS Schematics for 2004

*ADA = Section 168(k)(4) additional depreciation allowance.
†MACRS = 20% of asset’s remaining depreciation basis.

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