There are two kinds of accounting methods for leases: operating and capital lease. A vast majority are operating leases. An operating lease is treated like renting -- payments are considered operational expenses and the asset being leased stays off the balance sheet. In contrast, a capital lease is more like a loan; the asset is treated as being owned by the lessee so it stays on the balance sheet. The accounting treatment for capital and operating leases is different, and can have a significant impact on taxes owed by the business. A capital lease is called a "finance lease" by the IFAC.

Finance vs Operating Lease redirects here.

Comparison chart

Capital Lease versus Operating Lease comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartCapital LeaseOperating Lease
Lease criteria - Ownership Ownership of the asset might be transferred to the lessee at the end of the lease term. Ownership is retained by the lessor during and after the lease term.
Lease criteria - Bargain Purchase Option The lease contains a bargain purchase option to buy the equipment at less than fair market value. The lease cannot contain a bargain purchase option.
Lease criteria - Term The lease term equals or exceeds 75% of the asset's estimated useful life The lease term is less than 75 percent of the estimated economic life of the equipment
Lease criteria - Present Value The present value of the lease payments equals or exceeds 90% of the total original cost of the equipment. The present value of lease payments is less than 90 percent of the equipment's fair market value
Risks and Benefits Transferred to lessee. Lessee pays maintenance, insurance and taxes Right to use only. Risk and benefits remain with lessor. Lessee pays maintenance costs
Accounting Lease is considered as asset (leased asset) and liability (lease payments). Payments are shown in Balance sheet No risk of ownership. Payments are considered as operating expenses and shown in Profit and Loss statement
Tax Lessee is considered to be the owner of the equipment and therefore claims depreciation expense and interest expense Lessee is considered to be renting the equipment and therefore the lease payment is considered to be a rental expense
A For-Lease sign for a property
A For-Lease sign for a property

What is a Lease?

A lease is an agreement conveying the right to use property, plant, and equipment (PP&E) usually for a stated period of time. The party that gets the right to use the asset is called a lessee and the party that owns the asset but leases it to others is called the lessor.

Types of Leases

Various accounting standards recognize different kinds of leases. Standards govern the classification not just the lessee but also for the lessor.

Types of Leases Recognized by Various Standards, as found in this FASAB report. The IFAC recognizes Capital Leases but calls them Finance Lease.
Types of Leases Recognized by Various Standards, as found in this FASAB report. The IFAC recognizes Capital Leases but calls them Finance Lease.

In general, a capital lease (or finance lease) is one in which all the benefits and risks of ownership are transferred substantially to the lessee. The legal owner (the holder of the title) may still be the lessor. This is analogous to financing a car via an auto loan -- the car buyer is the owner of the car for all practical purposes but legally the financing company retains title until the loan is repaid.

Capital Lease Test

How does one choose between capital and operating leases for accounting? In general, companies prefer operating leases. So the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has imposed some restrictions on which leases can be treated as operating leases. A lease must be treated as a capital lease if it meets any single one of the following 4 conditions:

The last two criteria do not apply when the beginning of the lease term falls within the last 25 percent of the total estimated economic life of the leased property.

If none of these criteria are met and the lease agreement is only for a limited-time use of the asset, then it is an operating lease.

Accounting for leases: Operating and Capital Lease

Capital and operating leases receive different accounting treatment both for the lessor and the lessee. We will focus on the lessee in this analysis. Under operating lease accounting, the lessee does not own the asset, which has the following implications:

In contrast, accounting for a capital lease (or finance lease in IFAC terminology) treats the lessee as the owner of the asset, which means:

The FASB and the IASB have proposed some changes to lease accounting rules that would virtually eliminate operating lease accounting treatment for all companies that lease real estate. The changes, proposed in 2012, are expected to take effect in 2015.[1] The proposed standards will require assets and liabilities to be reported related to the lease. To that extent, the leases will be similar to capital or finance leases. But there are some differences in how these assets and liabilities are measured.

Pros and Cons

Advantages of an operating lease

Advantages of a capital lease


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