United States

Fixed assets: Ghosts in the machine

Outdated and out of service assets can wreak havoc on your tax profile

INSIGHT ARTICLE  | 

Everyone has ghost assets on their fixed asset systems. You know the ones:

  • The computer you placed in service in 2002 that was donated to a local school years ago
  • The truck that hasn’t run in years but is parked…somewhere, maybe
  • The telephone system that got replaced, twice

Once these assets are fully depreciated, most companies do not give them a second thought, and expend little, if any, effort to track them down and write them off. But ghost assets can affect your bottom line by taking up space in your servers, adding to your personal property tax base, overstating the cost and accumulated depreciation balances on your financials, and increasing the effort to consolidate or outsource certain functions within your organization.

Here is an example of how quickly a simple business decision can get complicated:

A company wants to outsource the labor of its shared service center to an outside consultant, but has an ongoing, long-term lease on the building that houses the center. Most of the company’s employees will transfer over to the outside consultant and continue in their current roles. The company would lease the furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) to the consultant, at least until the consultant upgrades the laptops and servers and office furniture over time.

But what if the company doesn’t really know which assets are active and which have been out of service for years? When it comes time for the consultant to replace outdated equipment, is there a line of communication set up to inform the company that the equipment should now be out of service? Will the company even know which assets to retire when informed by the consultant?

Even in a scenario where the company has no long-term lease considerations, and makes the decision to outsource a non-core function to an outside consultant, will the company know which assets to dispose of in the outsourced unit, and which ones to keep? What can be done to simplify the process of retiring assets when they are no longer in service? How can the company avoid the pain of culling through hundreds or thousands of lines of assets when a transition of an internal function occurs? 

Begin at the beginning…

The best way to avoid confusion at the end of the asset lifecycle is to properly identify it at the start. You should physically tag every newly purchased FF&E asset with a code that is tracked by the department that centrally purchased the assets (e.g. building services tracks the coffee machines, and information technology tracks the laptops). The affixed codes should be integrated with the data recorded in the fixed asset system at purchase. So when building services or IT tracks an asset through its lifecycle, they won’t have to hunt through the fixed asset detail to figure out which asset is being disposed of when it goes out of service.

If you are not already taking this step—or are in the process of developing a system that supports such identification—you can add an employee name or some other unique identifier to an asset’s description in the fixed asset system (such as Laptop120-JJones). This short-term solution can get complicated, though. For example, if Jones leaves the company, the laptop will likely be placed in the inventory for re-use with new employees, yet the asset name will not change. In other scenarios, you may purchase equipment, such as coffee machines or computers, in bulk, with no specific user in mind. These are entered 10, 20, 30 at a time as one asset into the fixed asset system. In this case, you will be challenged to determine what amount of that bulk asset should be written off at the end of the individual equipment lifecycles. And that is if you’ve been tracking the equipment overall. For companies less diligent, ghost assets are the result.

Returning to best practices, your goal should be to create distinct records that can be traced throughout the asset’s lifecycle. To do this you should:

  • Individually record the purchase of an asset in the fixed asset system rather than in bulk
  • Tie the asset tracking process into the initial asset recording process when an asset is purchased and placed in service
  • Assign the tracking code physically applied to the asset to the fixed asset detail (either as the main asset ID or entered into a supplemental field in the fixed asset system using a required field in the accounts payable system)

This approach simplifies the process of recording dispositions as they occur as the employees responsible for tracking fixed assets are using the same fixed asset detail found in the asset ID or supplemental fields. 

…and plan to reassess

If your company has not implemented a strategic asset identification process, you can always begin with new assets and eventually cleanse most of your records. During this transition, and recommended thereafter for data integrity, you should consider mandating an annual fixed asset inventory and disposition audit into your company’s capitalization policy.

Most capitalization policies tell you everything you need to know about setting up an asset, and very little about retiring one. An annual disposition audit should mandate that a physical inventory be taken at a time other than year end to ensure that the process does not get lost in the thicket of higher, more visible priorities. This will ultimately reduce the time devoted to the fixed asset inventory process, and ensure that the sub-ledgers supporting your financial statements reflect what the company actually owns. You should partner with those responsible for filing the company’s personal property tax returns as well. They are responsible for getting the asset basis as low as possible for assessment purposes and together you may identify assets on your system that have been previously disposed.

Conclusion

There is no reason your company should be haunted by ghost assets. Take the time now to set up proper processes:

  • Record the individual assets in your fixed asset detail
  • Apply an effective tracking system to each asset purchase
  • Make that tracking data accessible to the employees who track fixed assets for their group
  • Mandate an annual disposition audit to weed out unused or abandoned assets
  • Write off the assets you no longer own as soon as they are out of service

Doing so will de-clutter your fixed asset detail, make it easier for the income tax and property tax people to do their work and ensure that your financial statements reflect what you actually own. You will also have a system that is more easily transitioned should your business operations change through outsourcing or acquisition. If the right information is in place, the end result will be a lot less scary.

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