Contingent liabilities reflect amounts that your business might owe if a specific “triggering” event happens in the future. Sometimes companies are unclear when they’re required to report a contingent liability on their financial statements under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Here are the basics.
What are contingent liabilities?
Operating a business comes with a degree of uncertainty. For example, a company might be involved in a legal dispute that could result in the payment of a settlement based on a verdict reached in a court. However, at the time of the company’s financial statements, whether there will be a settlement liability and the date and amount of any settlement have yet to be determined. This is an example of a contingent liability that may or may not materialize in the future.
Other examples of contingent liabilities are 1) warranties triggered by product deficiencies, and 2) a pending government investigation. Conversion of a contingent liability to an expense depends on a specific triggering event.
Recording a contingent liability is a noncash transaction, because it has no initial impact on cash flow. Instead, the creation of a contingent liability notifies stakeholders of a potential liability that could materialize in the future. This is consistent with the need to fully disclose material items with a likelihood of impacting a company’s finances in the future.
When should you record a contingent liability?
A contingent liability can be categorized as:
- Reasonably possible, or
Remote losses typically don’t require disclosure in your financial statements. If a loss is reasonably possible, you would add a note about it to the company’s financial statements. The same approach applies when the loss is probable, but it remains impossible to estimate the magnitude with any degree of certainty.
On the other hand, if a loss becomes probable and can be reasonably estimated, your company would report a contingent liability on the balance sheet and a loss on the income statement. If the amount fluctuates and you can estimate the revised amount with confidence, you should update the amount recorded in the financial statements accordingly. The contingent liability remains on the balance sheet until your company pays it off.
A gray area
Determining whether a liability is remote, reasonably possible or probable and estimating losses are subjective areas of financial reporting. External auditors are on the lookout for new contingencies that aren’t yet recorded. They also will evaluate whether existing loss estimates are still reasonable. During audit fieldwork, be ready to provide supporting documentation to your auditors and, if necessary, work with them to adjust your financial statements to reflect any changes in the circumstances surrounding your contingent liabilities.