Do you use an automobile in your trade or business? If so, you may question how depreciation tax deductions are determined. The rules are complicated, and special limitations that apply to vehicles classified as passenger autos (which include many pickups and SUVs) can result in it taking longer than expected to fully depreciate a vehicle.
Depreciation is built into the cents-per-mile rate
First, be aware that separate depreciation calculations for a passenger auto only come into play if you choose to use the actual expense method to calculate deductions. If, instead, you use the standard mileage rate (65.5 cents per business mile driven for 2023), a depreciation allowance is built into the rate.
If you use the actual expense method to determine your allowable deductions for a passenger auto, you must make a separate depreciation calculation for each year until the vehicle is fully depreciated. According to the general rule, you calculate depreciation over a six-year span as follows: Year 1, 20% of the cost; Year 2, 32%; Year 3, 19.2%; Years 4 and 5, 11.52%; and Year 6, 5.76%. If a vehicle is used 50% or less for business purposes, you must use the straight-line method to calculate depreciation deductions instead of the percentages listed above.
For a passenger auto that costs more than the applicable amount for the year the vehicle is placed in service, you’re limited to specified annual depreciation ceilings. These are indexed for inflation and may change annually. For example, for a passenger auto placed in service in 2023 that cost more than a certain amount, the Year 1 depreciation ceiling is $20,200 if you choose to deduct first-year bonus depreciation. The annual ceilings for later years are: Year 2, $19,500; Year 3, $11,700; and for all later years, $6,960 until the vehicle is fully depreciated.
These ceilings are proportionately reduced for any nonbusiness use. And if a vehicle is used 50% or less for business purposes, you must use the straight-line method to calculate depreciation deductions.
Reminder: Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, bonus depreciation is being phased down to zero in 2027, unless Congress acts to extend it. For 2023, the deduction is 80% of eligible property and for 2024, it’s scheduled to go down to 60%.
Heavy SUVs, pickups and vans
Much more favorable depreciation rules apply to heavy SUVs, pickups, and vans used over 50% for business, because they’re treated as transportation equipment for depreciation purposes. This means a vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) above 6,000 pounds. Quite a few SUVs and pickups pass this test. You can usually find the GVWR on a label on the inside edge of the driver-side door.
What matters is the after-tax cost
What’s the impact of these depreciation limits on your business vehicle decisions? They change the after-tax cost of passenger autos used for business. That is, the true cost of a business asset is reduced by the tax savings from related depreciation deductions. To the extent depreciation deductions are reduced, and thereby deferred to future years, the value of the related tax savings is also reduced due to time-value-of-money considerations, and the true cost of the asset is therefore that much higher.
The rules are different if you lease an expensive passenger auto used for business. Contact us if you have questions or want more information.
What is the difference between using the actual expense method and standard mileage rate when calculating depreciation for a passenger auto?
Under the actual expense method, you calculate depreciation by tracking and deducting the actual expenses incurred for the vehicle, such as fuel, repairs, maintenance, insurance, and depreciation. This method requires you to keep detailed records of all expenses related to the vehicle. On the other hand, the standard mileage rate method allows you to deduct a set amount per mile driven for business purposes. The IRS sets this rate each year. For 2023, the standard mileage rate is 65.5 cents per mile. When it comes to depreciation specifically, under the actual expense method, you can deduct the actual depreciation expense of your vehicle based on its cost and useful life. With the standard mileage rate method, depreciation is already factored into the mileage rate. So when you claim deductions using the standard mileage rate, you cannot separately deduct depreciation expenses. It’s important to note that once you choose a method for calculating depreciation (either actual expense or standard mileage rate), you generally must continue using that same method for as long as you use that vehicle for business purposes.
How do I choose whether to use the actual expense method or standard mileage rate when calculating depreciation for my passenger auto?
To decide which method is best for you, you should consider factors such as your annual mileage, the age and condition of your vehicle, and whether you have high or low expenses related to operating your car for business purposes. It may be helpful to consult with a tax professional who can assess your specific situation and provide guidance on which method will result in the most favorable tax outcome for you.
Why do heavy SUVs have favorable depreciation rules?
Heavy SUVs have favorable depreciation rules because they are classified as “light trucks” for tax purposes. The tax code allows businesses to deduct a larger portion of the cost of heavy SUVs in the year that they are purchased, rather than spreading out the deduction over several years. This is known as bonus depreciation or Section 179 expensing. The rationale behind this favorable treatment is to encourage businesses to invest in vehicles that are used for business purposes, such as transporting goods or employees, by providing a financial incentive in the form of accelerated depreciation. It is worth noting that these rules apply specifically to vehicles that are used for business purposes at least 50% of the time.