You Totaled Your Vehicle? Tax Benefits You Can Use

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Let’s face it; wrecking your vehicle is a bummer. But, don’t let moping about something that’s done and over with keep you from being smart about the situation moving forward. There’s no need for having a totaled vehicle and missing out on tax benefits.

Understanding Tax Law

Your particular business situation will determine exactly how the tax law views your totaled vehicle, also called an involuntary conversion. Both individuals and corporations, however, have to work with the same rules as far as the business part of the vehicle. The difference lies in the personal use part. For an individual, there is a personal casualty loss. For corporations, there is no personal part; it’s all business.

If you’re confused about which situation applies to you, look at the check made out by the insurance company. When you total your vehicle, they will keep the vehicle and give you a check for its pre-accident value. If the check is made out to you (because you are a Schedule C taxpayer and you own the vehicle), you will divide the money between business and personal use based on mileage for each. A check made out to the corporation is not divided. On the books, the vehicle belongs to the business.

For a Proprietorship

Let’s do an example to see how you would divide the insurance money between personal and business use. In this example, you owned the vehicle for three years. During those three years, you drove it 20,000 miles for business and 5,000 miles for other uses. So, you have 80 percent business use from the time of purchase to the totaling of the vehicle.

You can now use that percentage to determine gain or loss on both a business and personal basis. Since a proprietorship is a Schedule C taxpayer, here’s what you need to know. 1) The business part will have either a taxable gain or a deductible loss. 2) For the personal part, you will pay taxes on any gain, but you cannot deduct a loss.

To clarify the personal casualty loss, you probably will not have a personal deduction if you had insurance. You see, by IRS rules you can deduct whichever is lower of your cost or the fair market value, minus the insurance proceeds. Since insurance will likely reimburse at fair market value minus your deductible, there will not be a personal casualty loss deduction.

Even if you have an insurance deductible, it is unlikely you will come out with a personal loss deduction. That’s because tax law includes these two additional rules regarding personal loss:

  1. The amount of each casualty loss is reduced by $100[1], and then
  2. Casualty losses are only allowed to the extent that they exceed ten percent of adjusted gross income[2].

If you think you might still have a personal loss to claim after these calculations, check with your tax advisor to be sure.

For a Corporation

Your corporation may own a vehicle that you use for both business and personal reasons. In that case, the corporation will assign a value to your personal use. That amount then goes on your W-2, or you will be responsible for reimbursing the corporation. Since you are a more than 5 percent shareholder, you are obligated by specific legal requirements regarding how your corporation determines this value.

Here’s how the example above plays out when the vehicle belongs to your corporation. As far as depreciation, gain, and loss purposes, the corporation owns 100 percent of the vehicle. So, all gains will be taxable, and any loss will be deductible.

Deferring Taxes

In either scenario, you can end up with some taxable gains. Usually, these gains come about because of depreciating the vehicle or expensing deductions claimed on it. When your gain comes from deductions, it’s called “recapture income”, which is taxed at the usual income tax rates. But, here’s a little secret: you can avoid those taxes!

Instead of claiming your totaled vehicle as a gain, you can replace it with other like-kind property. Tax law even allows for two years from the time of the wreck for you to make the replacement[3]. The details are covered under IRS Section 1031 on exchanges of business vehicles, which states that like-kind property for vehicles includes cars, light general-purpose trucks, and vehicles that share characteristics of the two former types (such as crossovers, SUV’s, vans, etc.).

All you have to do to defer the taxes is reinvest all of your insurance money into a new vehicle and properly document this on your tax return. That means if you wreck your SUV, you can take the $20,000 insurance money and replace your SUV with a car. If you don’t reinvest the full amount, you will have taxable income for the amount leftover[4]. So, if that new car only costs $16,000, you’ll have a taxable gain of $4,000. It works this way for both a proprietorship and a corporation.

Don’t Forget the Documentation

In order for your vehicle replacement to be accepted by the IRS (and to avoid taxes), be sure you attach a statement to your tax return (either the Form 1040 or the corporate return) that includes[5]:

  • Details of the wreck, including the date,
  • Amount of insurance reimbursement,
  • How you calculated the gain,
  • The replacement property purchased,
  • The amount of gain that is postponed,
  • The adjusted basis on the replacement vehicle (which is reduced by the deferral of gain), and
  • How much of the gain is taxable (again, if you invest the full reimbursement amount, there is no taxable gain).

So, in order to avoid those gain taxes, replace your vehicle with one of like-kind (which basically means for the same use) and document everything about your wreck, insurance reimbursement, and purchase of the new vehicle. For any business losses, deduct those immediately! Business loss deductions work the same way for a proprietorship or a corporation. You may not like knowing that you totaled your vehicle, but you can rest easy with the knowledge to set your finances straight in the aftermath.

  1. IRC Section 165(h)(1).
  2. IRC Section 165(h)(2).
  3. IRC Section 1033(a)(2).
  4. IRC Section 1033(a)(2)(A).
  5. IRS Pub. 547, Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts (2012), posted Nov. 29, 2012, p. 12.