Not all arrangements qualify as a lease under the new standard. Of course, sometimes it’s easy to figure out if it’s a lease: renting your office space definitely qualifies as a lease. Copier and vehicle leases are, in fact, leases. So when might your payments for the use of an asset not be a lease? It’s worth understanding the definitions to ensure you follow the proper accounting guidelines. And of course, don’t forget to read to the end where we list exceptions to this rule.


Under the new leasing standard, all leases must be recognized as both an asset and offsetting liability for future lease payments. This is a big difference from the previous standard, where operating leases were not reflected on the balance sheet.

One key to knowing that you have a lease rather than another type of contract is whether you have the right to control or use an asset. Additionally, the asset itself must be explicitly or implicitly identified, as well as be physically distinct.

Who controls the asset?

To be a lease, the lessee must control the asset. Without that there is no lease, even if the asset is explicitly identified in the contract. To identify who controls the asset, both of the following two requirements must be met to qualify for lease accounting

  1. The lessee has the right to substantially all of the economic benefits through the period of time.
  2. The lessee has the right to direct the use of the identified asset.

Explicitly identified assets

While in most instances an asset is explicitly identified – office space or equipment installed and used onsite – sometimes an agreement allows for substantive substitutions and therefore the contract isn’t a lease.

For example, perhaps a manufacturer might specify a particular model, but the actual equipment used is interchangeable and still satisfies the contract. This type of arrangement is not a lease. Another example could include a supplier who outsources their obligation to unspecified and interchangeable third parties.

Lease substitution terms are not automatically considered substantive, like a contract that allows the lessor to replace an asset for a defect or requires a lessor to substitute other assets at specified dates. As a result, contracts with these sorts of provisions could still be considered a lease.

Two factors must be true for a substantive substitution right to exist and therefore not result in a lease:

  1. The supplier must have the practical ability to substitute the asset throughout the period of use.
  2. The supplier benefits economically by substituting the asset.

Implicitly identified assets

There are situations where an asset isn’t explicitly identified, yet the contract is a lease.

For example, a healthcare company may require a data center to store patient-related information. The supplier can use any portion of their data center, however because of a privacy and security provision in the contract, these restrictions essentially require the supplier to use a specific asset to comply with the terms of the contract.

Physically distinct

An identified asset must be physically distinct, which could be an entire asset or a portion of an asset. Examples include a building as a physically distinct asset or a floor within the building itself.

Another interesting example is a billboard in a stadium. If the contract specifies the use of a specific billboard for use of advertisements, then it is physically distinct.

Finally, a pipeline with a specific capacity could be physically distinct if the contract includes the use of substantially all of the pipeline capacity.


With any rule, there are always exceptions. For example, the leasing standard does not require lessees to apply the guidance to leases with a term of 12 months or less. Additionally, there are certain leasing scenarios that exempt the lease from consideration, including:

  • Leases of intangible assets (e.g., goodwill, etc)
  • Leases to explore for or use non-renewable resources (e.g., oil, natural gas, etc)
  • Leases of biological assets (e.g., timber, livestock, etc)
  • Leases of inventory or assets under construction
  • If you comply with the IFRS standards, you may elect to not apply the new lease standard if the underlying asset is of low value.
Improving your lease portfolio while implementing the new lease accounting standard can provide guidance to the solution you need to continue your businesses’ success. GBQ is pleased to partner with lease accounting software LeaseCrunch to simplify your adoption efforts. To learn more, contact Kristin Romaker or Mary Stucke.


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