Why The Classification Of Real And Personal Property Matters

The distinction between real and personal property can apply in a variety of different contexts. Certain issues may arise when a creditor would like to take possession of a piece of equipment that may be integrated into the real estate or possible disputes regarding which items a seller can remove when they vacate a property. In the property tax context, the issue relates to the taxation of property as either real or as personal property.

While U.S. states have historically taxed all tangible property, many of them, especially Rust Belt states hoping to attract new investment and retain existing manufacturing, have eliminated or are phasing out tax on personal property. Thus, the ability to properly categorize property as ‘real’ or ‘personal’ often can reduce the overall tax burden. Recategorization of certain assets can have other tax benefits too—filers can generally depreciate short-lived personal property more quickly than long-lived real estate assets. In some cases, the categorization process can reveal instances where the property has inadvertently been omitted from taxation, or worse, taxed twice by the local jurisdiction.

When it comes to classifying property as real or personal, most of the time the correct classification is readily apparent; however, a gray area lies within the determination of what constitutes a fixture. Fixtures are defined as articles that were once personal property but have been installed or attached to the land or building in a somewhat permanent manner. They are legally regarded as part of the real estate and, thus, deemed real property. In determining whether an item should be classified as a fixture for tax purposes, most taxing jurisdictions typically apply a three-part test

  • Annexation/Attachment—an evaluation of how the property has been connected to the real estate, how it might be removed and how much damage removal might cause
  • Adaptation—how the property in question is used in relation to the real estate
  • Intent—is the property intended to be permanently affixed to the real estate or does change of highest or best use of the real estate change the intent of the fixture

Respond to the questions below,

1. Why does the classification of real and personal property matter?

2. What are fixtures and what are three-part tests and why are they needed?

3. Why does the categorization of real and personal property be a worthwhile exercise for property owners?

4. Discuss something you have purchased that you assumed came with some things included in it when you purchased it which turned out not to be how you thought when you looked at the sample or demonstration or showing of it did not turn out so? Why did this occur and what did you learn?

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