Personal Use of Company Cars: IRS Issues New Valuation Rules

When an employee drives a company-provided vehicle for personal use, the employer has to calculate the value of that use for both income and employment taxes. The IRS recently updated the maximum values, adjusting them for inflation, under the vehicle cents-per-mile rule and the fleet-average value rule.

These changes stem from the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which included some vehicle-related amendments. The IRS is also temporarily loosening some of the consistency requirements for 2018 and 2019.

Valuing personal use

Like most employee perks, personal use of a company car must be included in the employee’s income for tax purposes. The question is, how should the employer calculate the value? They generally have four methods available to value an employee’s personal use of an employer-owned vehicle:

  1. General valuation rule. What would the employee would have to pay a third party to lease the same or similar vehicle on the same or comparable terms in the geographic area where the employee uses the vehicle? This method is based on fair market value (FMV).
  2. Commuting valuation rule. This is the amount of each one-way commute, from home to work or from work to home, multiplied by $1.50. (This method’s availability is subject to stringent requirements, including having a written policy limiting the employee’s use to commuting and “de minimis” personal use.)
  3. The cents-per-mile rule. Employers can use the business standard mileage rate (58 cents for 2019, subtracting as much as 5.5 cents/mile if the employer doesn’t provide fuel) multiplied by the total miles the employee drives the vehicle for personal purposes.
  4. The automobile annual lease valuation rule. With this method, employers use the annual lease value of the vehicle — as specified by an IRS table that bases annual lease value on an automobile’s FMV — multiplied by the percentage of personal miles out of total miles driven by the employee. This amount also is subject to a fuel adjustment.

Fleet-average rules

The fleet-average value rule allows employers operating a fleet of 20 or more qualifying automobiles to use an average annual lease value for every qualifying vehicle in the fleet when applying the automobile annual lease valuation rule.

The fleet-average value rule or the simple cents-per-mile rule isn’t available, though, if the FMV of the vehicle exceeds a certain base value, adjusted annually for inflation, on the first date the vehicle is made available to the employee for personal use. In 2017, the maximum value for the cents-per-mile rule was $15,900 for a passenger automobile and $17,800 for a truck or van. The maximum value for the fleet-average value rule that year was $21,100 for a passenger automobile and $23,300 for a truck or van.

The impact of tax reform

The IRS raised base values significantly this year, in IRS Notice 2019-08, to reflect amendments made by the TCJA. The law changes the price inflation measure for automobiles (including trucks and vans). It also substantially increases the maximum annual dollar limitations on the depreciation deductions for passenger automobiles, basing the latter on the depreciation of a passenger automobile with a cost of $50,000 (up from $12,800), inflation-adjusted annually, over a five-year recovery period.

The IRS announced in the guidance that it intended to amend the tax regulations to incorporate a base value of $50,000 for both the cents-per-mile and the fleet-average value rules, effective for the 2018 calendar year. It also intended to amend the regulations to provide that the base value will be adjusted annually for 2019 and future years using the new price inflation measure.

The latest changes

Now, in Notice 2019-34, the IRS has announced the adjusted values for 2019. For vehicles and automobiles first made available to employees for personal use in calendar year 2019, the maximum value under both rules is $50,400. Under planned amendments to the applicable regulations, these maximum values will be the same as the maximum standard automobile cost that determines eligibility to set reimbursement allowances under a fixed and variable rate (FAVR) plan — an alternative to the business standard mileage rate.

The IRS also shared its intention to amend the tax regulations to provide relief to employers that previously didn’t qualify for the cents-per-mile rule because, under the earlier rules, the vehicle’s FMV exceeded the permissible maximum value. Under amended regulations, the employer may first adopt the cents-per-mile valuation rule for 2018 or 2019 based on the maximum value of a vehicle for 2018 or 2019.

However, employers that adopt the cents-per-mile rule generally must continue to use it for all subsequent years in which the vehicle qualifies. An employer can, though, use the commuting valuation rule for any year the vehicle qualifies.

Similarly, employers that didn’t qualify for the fleet-average value rule before 2019 because of the pre-2018 maximum value limit can adopt the rule for 2018 or 2019 if it falls under the applicable maximum value.

The new notice confirms that employers can use the flexible guidelines in Announcement 85-113 to determine the timing for when personal use income is deemed paid. That means employers may use the rules in that guidance, the adjustment process, or the refund claim process to correct any overpayment of federal employment taxes resulting from application of the notice’s transition relief.

Don’t miss the fine print

Satisfying the maximum value limit isn’t enough for an employer to use the cents-per-mile rule or the fleet-average value rule to value an employee’s personal use of a vehicle. Both rules come with other requirements that can prove difficult to meet. For example, the cents-per-mile rule generally is available only if the employer reasonably expects the vehicle to be regularly used in its trade or business throughout the calendar year or the vehicle meets the mileage test.

Head spinning? Weaver’s tax professionals can help you determine the appropriate valuation method for your circumstances. Contact us today to request an appointment or ask a question.

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