Liabilities

Liabilities are obligations of the company; they are amounts owed to creditors for a past transaction and they usually have the word "payable" in their account title. Along with owner's equity, liabilities can be thought of as a source of the company's assets. They can also be thought of as a claim against a company's assets. For example, a company's balance sheet reports assets of $100,000 and Accounts Payable of $40,000 and owner's equity of $60,000. The source of the company's assets are creditors/suppliers for $40,000 and the owners for $60,000. The creditors/suppliers have a claim against the company's assets and the owner can claim what remains after the Accounts Payable have been paid.

Liabilities also include amounts received in advance for future services. Since the amount received (recorded as the asset Cash) has not yet been earned, the company defers the reporting of revenues and instead reports a liability such as Unearned Revenues or Customer Deposits. (For a further discussion on deferred revenues/prepayments see the Explanation of Adjusting Entries.)

Examples of liability accounts reported on a company's balance sheet include:

Liability accounts will normally have credit balances.

Contra liabilities are liability accounts with debit balances. (A debit balance in a liability account is contrary—or contra—to a liability account's usual credit balance.) Examples of contra liability accounts include:

Classifications Of Liabilities On The Balance Sheet

Liability and contra liability accounts are usually classified (put into distinct groupings, categories, or classifications) on the balance sheet. The liability classifications and their order of appearance on the balance sheet are:

To see how various liability accounts are placed within these classifications, click here to view the sample balance sheet in Part 4.

Commitments

A company's commitments (such as signing a contract to obtain future services or to purchase goods) may be legally binding, but they are not considered a liability on the balance sheet until some services or goods have been received. Commitments (if significant in amount) should be disclosed in the notes to the balance sheet.

Form vs. Substance

The leasing of a certain asset may—on the surface—appear to be a rental of the asset, but in substance it may involve a binding agreement to purchase the asset and to finance it through monthly payments. Accountants must look past the form and focus on the substance of the transaction. If, in substance, a lease is an agreement to purchase an asset and to create a note payable, the accounting rules require that the asset and the liability be reported in the accounts and on the balance sheet.

Contingent Liabilities

Three examples of contingent liabilities include warranty of a company's products, the guarantee of another party's loan, and lawsuits filed against a company. Contingent liabilities are potential liabilities. Because they are dependent upon some future event occurring or not occurring, they may or may not become actual liabilities.

To illustrate this, let's assume that a company is sued for $100,000 by a former employee who claims he was wrongfully terminated. Does the company have a liability of $100,000? It depends. If the company was justified in the termination of the employee and has documentation and witnesses to support its action, this might be considered a frivolous lawsuit and there may be no liability. On the other hand, if the company was not justified in the termination and it is clear that the company acted improperly, the company will likely have an income statement loss and a balance sheet liability.

The accounting rules for these contingencies are as follows: If the contingent loss is probable and the amount of the loss can be estimated, the company needs to record a liability on its balance sheet and a loss on its income statement. If the contingent loss is remote, no liability or loss is recorded and there is no need to include this in the notes to the financial statements. If the contingent loss lies somewhere in between, it should be disclosed in the notes to the financial statements.

Current vs. Long-term Liabilities

If a company has a loan payable that requires it to make monthly payments for several years, only the principal due in the next twelve months should be reported on the balance sheet as a current liability. The remaining principal amount should be reported as a long-term liability. The interest on the loan that pertains to the future is not recorded on the balance sheet; only unpaid interest up to the date of the balance sheet is reported as a liability.

Notes to the Financial Statements

As the above discussion indicates, the notes to the financial statements can reveal important information that should not be overlooked when reading a company's balance sheet.