Newark Morning Ledger Co. v. United States, 507 U.S. 546, 12 (1993)

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Cite as: 507 U. S. 546 (1993)

Opinion of the Court

The category of intangibles that has given the IRS and the courts difficulty is that group of assets sometimes denominated "customer-based intangibles." This group includes customer lists, insurance expirations, subscriber lists, bank deposits, cleaning-service accounts, drugstore-prescription files, and any other identifiable asset the value of which obviously depends on the continued and voluntary patronage of customers. The question has been whether these intangibles can be depreciated notwithstanding their relationship to "the expectancy of continued patronage."


When considering whether a particular customer-based intangible asset may be depreciated, courts often have turned to a "mass asset" or "indivisible asset" rule. The rule provides that certain kinds of intangible assets are properly grouped and considered as a single entity; even though the individual components of the asset may expire or terminate over time, they are replaced by new components, thereby causing only minimal fluctuations and no measurable loss in the value of the whole. The following is the usually accepted description of a mass asset:

"[A] purchased terminable-at-will type of customer list is an indivisible business property with an indefinite, nondepreciable life, indistinguishable from—and the principal element of—goodwill, whose ultimate value lies in the expectancy of continued patronage through public acceptance. It is subject to temporary attrition as well as expansion through departure of some customers, acquisition of others, and increase or decrease in the requirements of individual customers. A normal turnover of customers represents merely the ebb and flow of a continuing property status in this species, and does not within ordinary limits give rise to the right to deduct for tax purposes the loss of individual customers. The whole is equal to the sum of its fluctuating parts at any


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