What is Tangible Personal Property?

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Tangible personal property for ad valorem tax purposes means business property. But, in a will, its meaning depends on the other terms used in the document.

You might try to puzzle your way through the phrase "tangible personal property" to figure out its meaning. Personal property contrasts with real property, so perhaps it means everything that isn't real property. Tangible means something you can touch. So what is tangible personal property? It all depends on why you are asking.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Tangible personal property for ad valorem tax purposes means business property. But, in a will, its meaning depends on the other terms used in the document.

Taxes and Tangible Personal Property

If you have a business, you know the term tangible personal property as it relates to taxes. For tax purposes, it describes property that can be moved from one place to another, such as furniture and office equipment.

Tangible personal property is all property other than land and buildings used in business operations or in rental property. It includes vehicles, office furniture and fixtures, machinery, phones, computers and equipment. Remember that it has to be tangible, meaning touchable. This is to exclude stocks, bonds, patents and similar assets that are intangible assets.

Tangible personal property is taxed under states' ad valorum taxes. Many states require a business that owns tangible property to file a tax return form with the property appraisal office. You'll also have to file this type of return if you lease or rent tangible personal property. The state appraiser attaches a value to the personal property and calculates the tax by multiplying the value by the tax rate.

Wills and Tangible Personal Property

Tangible personal property is also one of the categories people use to leave property to beneficiaries in a will. If you inherit someone's tangible personal property, what do you get? It's easier to describe what you don't get. If you get tangible personal property, you don't get land, you don't get houses or buildings and you don't get stocks, bonds, cash or bank accounts. You might get everything else.

But courts don't use a hard and fast definition of tangible personal property when interpreting a will. Instead, they try to figure out what the person writing the will intended. For example, let's say a person writes a will leaving all tangible personal property to her son. However, in the will she also gives specific items of tangible personal property (e.g. a car) to her niece. A court will usually interpret the term tangible personal property to exclude the car.

If the person making the will lists out other items together with the term tangible personal property, the court can use the list to temper the definition of the term. For example, one court has interpreted a will provision that left, to one beneficiary: "All of my tangible personal property (other than currency) including without limitation, wearing apparel, personal effects, jewelry, furniture, furnishings, pictures, paintings and other objects of art, silver, china, glassware and other household effects, books and automobiles." The court interpreted "tangible personal property" in this context to be limited to tangible property used by the testator on a daily basis. It did not include a stamp or coin collection in that category.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.