Goodwill vs. Other Intangible Assets: What's the Difference?

Goodwill vs. Other Intangible Assets: An Overview

One of the concepts that can give non-accounting (and even some accounting) business folk a fit is a distinction between goodwill and other intangible assets in a company's financial statements.

Perhaps the confusion is to be expected. After all, goodwill denotes the value of certain non-monetary, non-physical resources, and that sounds like exactly what an intangible asset is.

However, many factors separate goodwill from other intangible assets, and the two terms represent separate line items on a balance sheet.

Key Takeaways

  • Customer loyalty, brand reputation, and other non-quantifiable assets count as goodwill.
  • Intangible assets are those that are non-physical, but identifiable.
  • These include a company's proprietary technology (computer software, etc.), copyrights, patents, licensing agreements, and website domain names.
  • While “goodwill” and “intangible assets” are sometimes used interchangeably, there are significant differences between them.
  • On a balance sheet "goodwill" and "intangible assets" are each separate line items.

Goodwill

Goodwill is a miscellaneous category for intangible assets that are harder to parse individually or measured directly. Customer loyalty, brand reputation, and other non-quantifiable assets count as goodwill.

Goodwill cannot exist independently of the business, nor can it be sold, purchased, or transferred separately. A company's record of innovation and research and development and the experience of its management team are often included, too. As a result, goodwill has an indefinite useful life, unlike most intangible assets.

Goodwill only shows up on a balance sheet when two companies complete a merger or acquisition. When a company buys another firm, anything it pays above and beyond the net value of the target's identifiable assets becomes goodwill on the balance sheet. Say a soft drink company was sold for $120 million; it had assets worth $100 million and liabilities of $20 million. The sum of $40 million that was paid over and above $80 million (the value of the assets minus the liabilities) is the worth of goodwill and is recorded in the books as such. 

Look at this example of an assets section of a balance sheet. Goodwill is a separate line item from intangible assets.

Current Assets  
Cash $300,000
Investments $200,000
Inventory $150,000
Non-current Assets  
Property, plant, and equipment $600,000
Goodwill $200,000
Intangible Assets $150,000

Other Intangible Assets

Intangible assets are those that are non-physical but identifiable. Think of a company's proprietary technology (computer software, etc.), copyrights, patents, licensing agreements, and website domain names. These aren't things that one can touch, exactly, but it is possible to estimate their value to the enterprise. Intangible assets can be bought and sold independently of the business itself.

There's also a key distinction in how the two asset classes are amended once they're on the books. Because assets tend to lose some of their value over time, companies sometimes have to make periodic write-downs.

Intangible assets are amortized, which means a fixed amount is marked down every year, resulting in a simultaneous charge against earnings. The amortization amount is adjusted if the asset's value is impaired at some point after its acquisition or development.

Key Differences

While “goodwill” and “intangible assets” are sometimes used interchangeably, there are significant differences between the two in the accounting world.

Goodwill is a premium paid over the fair value of assets during the purchase of a company. Hence, it is tagged to a company or business and cannot be sold or purchased independently. In contrast, other intangible assets like licenses, patents, etc., can be sold and purchased separately.

Goodwill is perceived to have an indefinite life (as long as the company operates), while other intangible assets have a definite useful life.

If there is no impairment, goodwill can remain on a company's balance sheet indefinitely.

Special Considerations

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) recently came up with a new alternative rule for the accounting of goodwill. For a long time, it could be amortized over a period of 40 years. A 2001 ruling decreed that goodwill could not be amortized but must be evaluated annually to determine impairment loss; this annual valuation process was expensive as well as time-consuming.

As per the alternative FASB rule for private companies, goodwill can be amortized on a straight-line basis over a period not to exceed 10 years. The need to test for impairment has decreased; instead, an impairment charge is recorded when an event signals that the fair value may have gone below the carrying amount.

These rules apply to businesses conforming to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) using a full accrual accounting method. If conditions indicate that the carrying value may not be recoverable, impairment tests are performed.

Small businesses using cash-basis accounting or modified cash-basis accounting can use the statutory rates set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS allows for a 15-year write-off period for the intangibles that have been purchased. There is a lot of overlap and contrast between the IRS and GAAP reporting. 

What Is Goodwill?

In business terms, "goodwill" is a catch-all category for assets that cannot be monetized directly or priced individually. Assets like customer loyalty, brand reputation, and public trust, are all qualify as "goodwill" and are non-qualifiable assets.

What Is GAAP Mean?

GAAP stands for generally accepted accounting principals.

Can You Write Off Intangible Assets?

Yes. You can write off intangible assets (for a 15-year write-off period) that have been purchased by using the statutory rates set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

What Is an Intangible Asset?

Patents, trademarks, licensing, and copyrights are all examples of intangible assets.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Journal of Accountancy. "Say Good-Bye to Pooling and Goodwill Amortization."

  2. Financial Accounting Standards Review Board. "News Release 07/20/01-FASB Issues Two Statements on its Business Combination Project."

  3. Financial Accounting Standards Board. "No. 2021-03-March 2021: Intangibles-Goodwill and Other (Topic 350)," Pages 13-14.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Intangibles."

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