In recent months, organizations have sought greater flexibility in their leases. Uncertainty from the pandemic has created an uptick in lease contract negotiations, as well as the act of looking for new leases altogether. Additionally, the popularity of short-term lease commitments has grown, where many previously valued the stability of long-term leases.
Different lease lengths may be handled differently according to lease accounting standards.
This blog lays out what you need to know about accounting for long-term leases, short-term leases and month-to-month leases under the ASC 842 requirements.
Lease lengths defined under ASC 842
For organizations that must comply with ASC 842, long-term, short-term and month-to-month leases are defined as follows.
● Long-term leases: at least one year and one day in duration or longer. Note: Long-term leases are defined the same way across all three major accounting standards (ASC, IFRS and GASB).
● Short-term leases: a duration of one year or less. Note: Under ASC 842, the short-term lease classification is a practical expedient you can choose to apply to an entire asset class. (Read more about the practical expedient for short-term leases below.)
● Month-to-month leases: a legal status that varies across different leases and different states. For accounting purposes, the key criteria of these leases are there is no set expiration date and they can be canceled by either party.
Accounting for long-term leases
Long-term leases have a greater impact on financials, given they remain on the balance sheet for an extended period of time. When making contract renewal decisions for long-term leases, you may find yourself examining their impact on your balance sheet.
Generally, lease renewals involve exercising an option in a current contract or negotiating a new contract. When a contract includes a renewal option, you do not have to exercise it; instead, you can seek to renew the lease with new terms.
For example, you might choose to not exercise an upcoming renewal option on an existing long-term lease with a new five-year term and higher rent than the current market rate. Instead, you could try to negotiate a lower price or a shorter lease term that will limit your commitment to the higher rent.
Lately, more organizations have been negotiating their existing contracts to take advantage of lower market rates and/or shorten their lease term.
Best practices for long-term lease renewals
By starting the lease renewal process early — ideally 9 to 12 months prior to lease expiration — you have enough time to explore alternative leases, see what is happening in the market and know what the best rates are. This puts you in a good position to possibly negotiate a new lease.
This is especially true for real estate leases, which are often long-term. Finding a new location and planning a move takes a lot of time and money. If you wait too long, or too close to the lease expiration, you could end up exercising an option you don’t want or changing to a month-to-month lease because there is too little time to move or to negotiate a new contract.
To avoid this, lease management software like Visual Lease can alert you about upcoming renewal deadlines and other critical dates. This is incredibly useful when planning next steps and making timely decisions.
Accounting for short-term leases
Under ASC 842, the “short-term” lease designation can be applied to an entire class of leases rather than on a lease-by-lease basis. By electing this practical expedient, short-term leases do not need to be reported on the balance sheet. This and other practical expedients simplify the lease classification process and help organizations more easily adhere to the new lease standard.
That means when you are first classifying and entering your leases into a lease management system, you should decide up front whether all leases of a particular asset class will be designated as short-term leases. For example, you might decide to treat all real estate leases or all equipment leases (or a particular type of equipment, such as copiers) of one year or less as short-term leases.
If you elect to apply the short-term designation, all leases that are one year or less in duration will be handled as short-term leases, with no exceptions. If you choose not to elect the practical expedient, then all leases will be considered long-term regardless of their duration.
Lease management software such as Visual Lease makes it easy to set up fields for different asset classes (such as real estate and equipment) and select which (if any) should be treated as short-term leases. With all your lease information in the system, the Visual Lease platform can then automatically determine which leases meet the short-term lease criteria based on the designated asset classes and contract dates and properly report the expense.
Short-term lease renewal challenges
Just like long-term leases, short-term leases can be renewed by exercising an option or negotiating a new contract. However, exercising an option or extending the length of a short-term lease is tricky because it can affect the “short-term” classification.
As an example: Suppose you have a one-year short-term lease with a renewal option, and you decide 3 months before the end of the current term that you’re going to exercise the option and extend the lease for one more year. With the remaining 3 months of the existing lease term plus the 12 months of the renewal term, you now have extended the contract to 15 months — exceeding the short-term lease criteria of one year (12 months) or less in duration.
In this case, the contract would now be considered a long-term lease, and you would need to identify the lease asset and determine the liability for accounting purposes.
But suppose instead you wait until the very end of a lease term before deciding to renew a short-term lease for another year. In this case, is adding a year to the existing term considered a lease extension, requiring the lease to be reclassified as long term?
Although ASC 842 does not provide explicit guidance for this situation, the feedback from the major auditing firms indicates that the one-year renewal could be treated as a distinct short-term lease. So, theoretically, you could be in a space for multiple years but only commit to one year at a time at the very end of each year, resulting in successive short-term leases.
Accounting for month-to-month leases
Sometimes organizations allow existing leases to become month-to-month to delay decisions about long-term commitments. Ideally, an organization would have a minimum number of these leases and manage them strategically — making a conscious decision to go month-to-month for a limited time only.
However, organizations may have month-to-month leases because renewals were not completed on time. Or sometimes the organization does not have a good strategy for replacing month-to-month leases and ends up continuing them “by default” rather than by choice.
Regardless, to maintain accurate lease accounting financial data, you should have an easy way to manage month-to-month leases. With Visual Lease software, you can change the status of a month-to-month lease at any time. Lease management and accounting software lets you easily modify lease information, change the commencement date and add a forecasted expiration date and other data to create a new schedule and calculations for month-to-month tenancy.
Visual Lease also makes it easy to track the dollars associated with a month-to-month lease, including any rent that applies during a holdover as well as straight-line rent expenses. The system can even identify month-to-month leases and show them as short-term lease expenses in disclosure reports.
Use lease lengths to your advantage
By understanding how the different lease terms are defined, you can more simply manage them in a strategic way.
Using a lease management software platform like Visual Lease allows your organization to strategically manage lease terms by:
● Applying consistent treatment to leases according to classification, asset class and any practical expedients that are elected
● Providing tools for creating, tracking, reporting and analyzing lease terms and costs
● Alerting decision makers about critical lease dates and deadlines for exercising lease options and renewals
Learn more about how to account for different lease terms from one of Visual Lease’s in-house experts. Check out our on-demand webinar Managing Short-Term, Long-Term and Month-to-Month Leases (and Everything in Between).