In business, amortization is the practice of writing down the value of an intangible asset, such as a copyright or patent, over its useful life. Amortization expenses can affect a company’s income statement and balance sheet, as well as its tax liability.

Calculating amortization for accounting purposes is generally straightforward, although it can be tricky to determine which intangible assets to amortize and then calculate their correct amortizable value. For tax purposes, amortization can result in significant differences between a company’s book income and its taxable income.

What is Amortization?

The term “amortization” may refer to two completely different financial processes: amortization of intangibles in business and amortization of loans.

For this article, we’re focusing on amortization as it relates to accounting and expense management in business. In this usage, amortization is similar in concept to depreciation, the analogous accounting process. Depreciation is used for fixed tangible assets such as machinery, while amortization is applied to intangible assets, such as copyrights, patents and customer lists.

Loan amortization, a separate concept used in both the business and consumer worlds, refers to how loan repayments are divided between interest charges and reducing outstanding principal. Amortization schedules determine how each payment is split based on factors such as the loan balance, interest rate and payment schedules.

Key Takeaways

  • Amortization is the accounting process used to spread the cost of intangible assets over the periods expected to benefit from their use.
  • The customary method for amortization is the straight-line method.
  • Determining which intangible assets may be amortized and the correct capitalized value can sometimes be tricky.
  • Amortization rules differ significantly for tax versus book purposes. But applied correctly, amortization can result in significant tax savings.

Amortization in Business

In business, accountants define amortization as a process that systematically reduces the value of an intangible asset over its useful life. It’s an example of the matching principle, one of the basic tenets of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). The matching principle requires expenses to be recognized in the same period as the revenue they help generate, instead of when they are paid.

Amortization impacts a company’s income statement and balance sheet. It also has a unique set of rules for tax purposes and can significantly impact a company’s tax liability.

How is Amortization Calculated?

For book purposes, companies generally calculate amortization using the straight-line method. This method spreads the cost of the intangible asset evenly over all the accounting periods that will benefit from it.

The formula for amortization is:

Capitalized Cost = Annual amortization expense / Estimated useful life

Determining the capitalized cost of an intangible asset (the numerator in this equation) can be the trickiest part of the calculation.

Say a company purchases an intangible asset, such as a patent for a new type of solar panel. The capitalized cost is the fair market value, based on what the company paid in cash, stock or other consideration, plus other incidental costs incurred to acquire the intangible asset, such as legal fees.

Valuing intangible assets that were developed by your company is much more complex, because only certain expenses can be included. Say you develop patentable new solar technology internally. Only the costs to secure the patent, such as legal, registration and defense fees, can be amortized. The costs incurred to develop the technology, such as R&D facilities and your engineers’ salaries, are deductible as business expenses.

For tax purposes, there are even more specific rules governing the types of expenses that companies can capitalize and amortize as intangible assets, as we’ll discuss.

Calculating and maintaining supporting amortization schedules for both book and tax purposes can be complicated. Using accounting software to manage intangible asset inventory and perform these calculations will make the process simpler for your finance team and limit the potential for error.

Amortization of Intangibles

Amortization applies to intangible assets with an identifiable useful life—the denominator in the amortization formula. The useful life, for book amortization purposes, is the asset’s economic life (the expected period during which an asset is useful to the owner) or its contractual/legal life (the time until, for example, a patent or license expires), whichever is shorter.

Limiting factors such as regulatory issues, obsolescence or other market factors can make an asset’s economic life shorter than its contractual or legal life.

Examples of amortizable intangible assets include:

  • Patents
  • Copyrights
  • Franchises
  • Trademarks
  • Software developed for internal use (not sold to customers)
  • Customer lists
  • Licenses

In contrast, intangible assets that have indefinite useful lives, such as goodwill, are generally not amortized for book purposes, according to GAAP. Instead, they are periodically reviewed to determine whether their value has decreased—this is known as “impairment of value.” Companies record any write-down as a loss on the P&L, not as an amortization expense.

There are some limited exceptions to this rule that allow privately held businesses to amortize goodwill over a 10 year period.

A company’s intangible assets are disclosed in the long-term asset section of its balance sheet, while amortization expenses are listed on the income statement, or P&L. However, because amortization is a non-cash expense, it’s not included in a company’s cash flow statement or in some profit metrics, such as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA).

Amortization for Tax Purposes

The IRS may require companies to apply different useful lives to intangible assets when calculating amortization for taxes. This variation can result in significant differences between the amortization expense recorded on the company’s book and the figure used for tax purposes.

The IRS calls the assets in the list above, such as patents and trademarks, “Section 197” intangibles after the section of the tax code where they’re defined. It requires companies to apply a 15-year useful life when calculating amortization for these assets for tax purposes.

Intangible assets that are outside this IRS category are amortized over differing useful lives, depending on their nature. For example, computer software that’s readily available for purchase by the general public is not considered a Section 197 intangible, and the IRS suggests amortizing it over a useful life of 36 months.

One notable difference between book and amortization is the treatment of goodwill that’s obtained as part of an asset acquisition. IRS publication 535, which covers business expenses, allows companies to use straight-line amortization of goodwill over a period of 180 months for tax purposes, whereas they must use the “impairment of value” measure to determine any amortization loss for book purposes.

Example of Amortization

Many examples of amortization in business relate to intellectual property, such as patents and copyrights. Here’s a typical situation.

  • Company ABZ Inc. paid an outside inventor $180,000 for the exclusive rights to a solar panel she developed.
  • ABZ Inc. spent $20,000 to register the patent, transferring the rights from the inventor for 20 years.
  • News of the sale caused two other inventors to challenge the application of the patent. ABZ successfully defended the patent but incurred legal fees of $50,000.

Patent capitalized cost = $250,000 ($180,000 + $20,000 + $50,000)

Useful life = 20 years

$250,000 / 20 = $12,500 annual amortization expense

Free Amortization Work Sheet

Download our free work sheet to apply amortization to intangible assets like patents and copyrights.

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Amortization vs. Depreciation: What's the Difference?

Amortization and depreciation are similar in that they both support the GAAP matching principle of recognizing expenses in the same period as the revenue they help generate.

However, there are significant differences between them.

  • Intangible vs. tangible assets: Amortization is used for intangible assets, while depreciation is used for tangible, fixed assets such as office equipment or buildings.
  • Cause of reduced asset value: Amortization generally reflects an intangible asset’s loss in value due to circumstances like contract expiration or obsolescence. In contrast, depreciation reflects the fact that a fixed asset loses value as it wears out or becomes consumed.
  • Applicability: Amortization applies only to intangible assets with finite, identifiable useful lives and not those with indefinite useful lives, while depreciation is generated for every fixed asset, excluding land.
  • Salvage value: Amortization is most often calculated on the entire value of an intangible asset, while depreciation typically assumes that a fixed asset has a salvage value.
  • Journal entries: Amortization expense is charged (debited) to the P&L expense account with an offsetting credit directly in the intangible asset account. In contrast, depreciation is credited to accumulated depreciation, a contra-asset account.

Amortizing Startup Costs

Entrepreneurs often incur startup costs to organize a business before it begins operating. These startup costs may include legal and consulting fees as well as marketing expenses and are an example of an area where there’s a significant difference between book amortization and tax amortization.

Under GAAP, for book purposes, any startup costs are expensed as part of the P&L; they are not capitalized into an intangible asset.

For tax purposes, however, some startup and organizational costs may be capitalized and amortized over periods up to 15 years, after taking initial deductions in the first year of operations. Determining which payments can be capitalized, and maintaining the associated additional amortization schedules, can be a tedious process. If a company hasn’t already implemented a robust accounting system as part of its startup efforts, additional bookkeeping expertise may be needed.