Amortizing Intangible Assets Under IRS Section 197

Amortizing Intangible Assets

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The cost of buying business assets is required to be spread out over the life of the asset. The IRS requires that tangible assets, like business equipment, machinery, and vehicles, be depreciated. Intangible business assets, like intellectual property, customer base, and licenses, are amortized. 

The processes of depreciating and amortizing are basically the same. The value of the asset is determined, and the life of the asset is calculated by comparing it to other similar assets. One of several different methods is then used to spread out the cost, depending on the type of asset.

How Intangible Assets Are Amortized

The IRS designates certain assets as intangible assets under Section 197 of the Internal Revenue Code. These intangible must usually be amortized (spread out) over 15 years. The classification of Section 197 intangibles is most often used in the valuation of a business for sale.

The IRS says, 

You must generally amortize over 15 years the capitalized costs of “section 197 intangibles” you acquired after August 10, 1993. You must amortize these costs if you hold the section 197 intangibles in connection with your trade or business or in an activity engaged in for the production of income.

Section 197 amortization rules apply to some business assets, but not others, and Section 197 rules, as noted above, only apply to assets that are acquired, not created. 

Applicable Intangible Assets

For purposes of Section 197, intangible assets include:

  1. Goodwill
  2. Going concern value
  3. Workforce in place (that is, current employees, including their experience, education, and training)
  4. Business books and records, operating systems, or any other information base, including lists or other information concerning current or prospective customers
  5. A patent, copyright, formula, process, design, pattern, know-how, format, or similar item
  6. A customer-based intangible, including customer base and relationships with customers
  7. A supplier-based intangible (the value of future purchases due to relationships with vendors)
  8. Any item similar to items (3) through (7)
  9. A license, permit, or other right granted by a governmental unit or agency (including issuances and renewals)
  10. An agreement or covenant not to compete or non-compete agreement entered into in connection with the acquisition of an interest in a trade or business; and
  11. A franchise, trademark, or trade name
  12. A contract for the use of, or a term interest in, any item in this list

But the IRS says you cannot amortize assets in categories 1 through 8 if you created these assets, unless "you created them in acquiring assets that make up a trade or business or a substantial part of a trade or business."

Non-Applicable Intangible Assets

Certain intangible assets are NOT considered to be Section 197 intangibles, and thus may not be amortized over 15 years:

  1. Copyrights and patents, interests in films, sound recordings, videotapes, books, or other similar property. Exception: If any of these intangibles are acquired as part of a business purchase, they may be considered Section 197 intangibles.
  2. Interests in a corporation, partnership, trust, or estate; in land or in certain financial contracts
  3. Sports franchises
  4. Some computer software
  5. Some corporate transaction costs.
  6. Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information purposes only, and it is not intended to be tax or legal advice. Be sure to consult a tax professional before amortizing intangibles.

The IRS regulations on these intangible assets are complex. This is work for your CPA or business tax preparer.