Section 179 Deduction

Named for Section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) that allows this type of first-year expensing, an individual small business owner or a business entity — but not estates or trusts — can deduct capital expenses on tangible property up to the statutory limit for the applicable tax year, but only if the total investment in depreciable property is less than the investment threshold; if the investment is greater than the investment threshold, then the allowable §179 deduction is reduced dollar for dollar, by the amount that the total investment exceeds the investment threshold, thus eliminating the §179 deduction completely when the total investment reaches the §179 phaseout amount:

Maximum Annual §179 Deduction
2014 - 2016$500,000$2,000,000$2,500,000
2010 - 2011$500,000$2,000,000$2,500,000
2008 - 2009$250,000
  • Starting in 2016, adjusted annually for inflation in $10,000 increments.

However, for tax years stating in 2015, the $500,000 deduction limit has been made permanent and will be indexed for inflation, starting in 2016. Additionally, a §179 deduction can be claimed on qualified real property expenditures for up to $250,000 in 2015 and up to $500,000 in 2016 and afterwards. Qualified real property expenditures include certain improvements to the interiors of retail buildings and of leased nonresidential buildings, and certain restaurant buildings or improvements to such buildings. The §179 deduction is claimed on Form 4562, Depreciation and Amortization.

Without the §179 deduction, capital expenses would have to be depreciated over a period that can range from 3 years for tools and devices to 7 years for office furniture and fixtures, cell phones, and fax machines, depending on the type of property — most tangible business property is 5-year property. Depreciation, however, may be preferable if the business owner expects to be in a higher tax bracket in the future. Additionally, the §179 deduction, unlike bonus depreciation, can also be used to deduct the purchase of used items. However, only the amount paid in cash can be deducted under §179 — the credit received for a trade-in does not qualify.

There are other sections of the IRC that allow special deductions similar to §179, including IRC:

IRC §263 provides more information on capital expenditures.

Some property cannot be deducted under §179, including:

Special, complex rules apply to the deduction of motor vehicles. The deduction for light vehicles — those whose gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) does not exceed 6000 pounds — is much lower than the §179 deduction limit. For 2016, the maximum first-year depreciation deduction is limited to $11,560 for new light trucks and vans $11,160 for new cars. If the motor vehicle is bought used, then the 1st year deduction limits are $3560 and $3160, respectively. (The GVWR can usually be found on the label on the inside edge, near the hinges of the driver’s door.)

For heavy vehicles, defined as those with GVWR exceeding 6000 pounds, up to the full $500,000 limit can be claimed for new or used heavy vehicles that are used more than 50% for business. If the vehicle is new, then an additional 50% first-year bonus depreciation can also be claimed.

There is an over 50% business use requirement for the asset to be expensed under §179. Not only does the asset have to be used for at least 50% of the time in the year that it is expensed, but it must also be used more than 50% of the time for business for each succeeding year over its class life — in other words, over the time period in which it would ordinarily be depreciated.

If the asset is used 50% or less, then it must be depreciated according to the amount of business use for each year in which it is used over its class life.

Example — 50% Business Use Requirement

You buy a computer for $1,000, which has a 5 year class life.

Case 1: You use the computer 40% of the time for business over the 5 years. You cannot claim a §179 deduction, because you did not use a computer more than 50% of the time in any year. However, you can depreciate 40% of its value over 5 years using the straight-line method.

Case 2: You use a computer 60% of the time during the year it was placed in service, and you claimed a $600 deduction (60% × $1000) under §179 for that year. However, in subsequent years, you used it only 40% of the time. Consequently, you must recapture some of the deduction that you took in the first year and depreciate the cost according to the percentage of usage for each year.

Listed Property

There is some property, such as vehicles, cellular phones, tablets or e-book readers, and computers and other peripherals, that is often used for either business or personal use. Because many taxpayers attempt to deduct these items even when their use is mostly personal, the IRS has strict rules regarding recordkeeping for such property. If the business use is documented, then the listed property will qualify for the deduction if the business use is greater than 50%.

There is no §179 deduction for motor vehicles that weigh 6000 pounds or less. If the vehicle weighs more than 6,000 pounds gross weight when loaded, then there is a special limit of $25,000 under §179.

Limits to using Section 179

Generally, the total amount deducted under §179 cannot exceed the taxpayer's total working income for that year. This includes not only income from the business itself for which the 179 deduction has been taken, but it can also include earnings as an employee or from operating another business. Any unused portion of the deduction can be carried forward to future tax years until the deduction is used up.

Because the 179 deduction can only be used to lower taxes on working income, earned from either a business or as an employee, passive investors are not entitled to the §179 deduction even if they are a partner in a business that can take the deduction. So if a partner becomes disabled, and is not able to work for the entire year, then he cannot take any 179 deduction, since any income received from the business will be considered passive income.

Because the §179 deduction was intended for small businesses, there is an investment limit where the deduction is only available to businesses that purchase less than $2,500,000 worth of depreciable assets. If the value of the purchased assets is more than $2 million but less than $2,500,000, then the deduction limit is equal to $500,000 minus the amount over $2 million of purchased depreciable assets. Hence, if the business buys $2,300,000 worth of depreciable assets in 2013, then that business can deduct only $200,000 [$500,000 - ($2,500,000 - $2,300,000)] under §179. Other depreciation methods will have to be used for the remaining property.

A disadvantage for married couples is that they are limited to the §179 limits of a single taxpayer, even if they have separate businesses or if they filed taxes separately. However, marriage can be an advantage if the business-owning spouse has losses that are greater than her total income, since she can deduct the §179 expense from the working spouse's income as long as that income is greater than the amount of the deduction.

There is also only one §179 deduction maximum for a partnership, limited liability company, or an S corporation. The partners, members, or shareholders of these business entities can only claim the §179 deduction in proportion to their ownership interest. For a C corporation, only the corporation can use the §179 deduction, not the shareholders.

The §179 deduction is limited to the actual amount of the purchase. If there is any trade-in allowance, then that must be deducted from the cost of the equipment to determine the maximum §179 deduction.

Example: you purchase a professional camera for $5000, and the dealer gives you a trade-in allowance of $1000 for your old camera. Therefore, you can only claim $4000 as a §179 deduction.

When to Claim the Section 179 Deduction

Whether the §179 deduction should be taken depends on the profitability of the business in the current year and in future years. If the business owner projects that she will make a lot more money in the future, then it may be better to depreciate the property over the class life of the property rather than expensing it under §179.

Purchases can be made at the end of the year to reduce taxes that will be due shortly by April of the following year for a business on a calendar year. However, the assets must be placed in service in the year in which the deduction is claimed.

When buying a business asset, the §179 deduction can be combined with other depreciation methods. This allows better planning depending on the profitability of the business in the current year and the expected profitability of the business in future years. So, for a $10,000 asset, $4000 can be deducted under §179 and the other $6000 can be deducted in future years using other depreciation methods.

The §179 deduction can also be applied to assets bought with credit, even if the equipment will not be fully paid for over several years. The full §179 deduction can be taken when the asset is placed in service and any interest paid on the loan can be deducted in the years when they are incurred.

Tax Tip: If you decide to use different depreciation methods for different property, then take into consideration the class life of the property and any projections of your future profitability. For instance, if you think that you will be more profitable 5 years hence, then it may be better to claim the §179 deduction for 3- or 5-year property, then use other depreciation methods for longer life assets when the deduction will be more valuable. On the other hand, if the business is already very profitable, then it may make sense to use the §179 deduction for assets with a longer class life, so that they can be immediately deducted, then deducting the short-life assets over the next few years.

Recapture When Business Use Falls to 50% or Less

If any §179 deduction taken on equipment not used at least 50% of the time over the class life of the equipment, then the owner will have to pay back some of the 179 deduction. The recaptured amount will equal the §179 deduction minus the amount that the owner would have depreciated under the straight-line depreciation methods.