Contingent Liability Defined

Contingent Liability, What is Contingent LiabilityAs the name implies, a contingent liability for a business does not always happen and depends on how the future unfolds. When it comes to a business analyzing a contingent liability, it focuses on the probability of the business realizing it, the time frame within which the liability might occur, and the accuracy of the contingent liability’s estimated amount.  

When to Record and Notify of Contingent Liabilities

Projected contingent liabilities are typically recorded if the contingent liability will materialize and can be reasonably projected with a high level of accuracy. Examples include a company making good on a large-scale product warranty, a business facing a government probe or ongoing litigation, or an organization having to satisfy a guarantee on debt.

When recording contingent liabilities, businesses must adhere to three accounting principles from generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS):

1. The Full Disclosure Principle

This requires consequential and pertinent financial details and essentials to be documented thoroughly in financial statements. Relevant fiscal circumstances that have a reasonable likelihood to negatively impact a business’s future net profitability, cash flow, and assets highlight the importance of why a company’s solvency is the primary focus of this tenant.   

2. The Materiality Principle

This focuses on the necessity of financial statement disclosure. Preparers of the financial statements must determine if including financial information (or not) on the business’s financial statements would give interested parties substantive information to help them determine whether or not to engage with the company.

3. The Prudence Principle

This last principle focuses on ensuring income and assets are reported accurately, along with requiring liabilities and expenses not to be reported too low. When applying this principle through the lens of contingent liabilities, if there’s more than a 50 percent chance of the event occurring, it and the associated expense are documented. Recording the liability gives a fair reporting of the expenses and obligations.  

Naturally, if there’s a strong likelihood of reducing a business’s ability to sustain profitability, it also can reduce investor interest in buying part (or all) of the company. Similarly, while being transparent by disclosing contingent liabilities, a business might not be able to secure lending if the lender doesn’t have faith that the debt will be repaid according to the loan’s terms.

Contingent liabilities that are expected to occur/settle in the short term are usually more impactful. Conversely, contingent liabilities that are anticipated to be settled over the long term are less impactful because there’s a smaller chance of the event actually materializing.     

Another consideration when it comes to generally accepted accounting principles is that there are three categories of contingent liabilities, which are all based on the probability of it occurring.

  1. If the likelihood of the liability arising is more than 50 percent and the loss can be projected with relative certainty, this is recorded as an expense on the income statement and a liability on the balance sheet. This also can be referred to as a probable contingent liability that can be reasonably estimated (and reflected on financial statements).
  2. If the contingency meets one, but not both, of the criteria of a high probability contingency, the contingent liability is required to be documented in the footnotes of the financial statements. This also can be referenced by stating that the liability is as likely to occur as not.
  3. If a contingent liability does not meet either of the first two conditions, the rest fall into this category. Since the probability of a cost arising due to these liabilities is highly unlikely, and while reporting these in financial statements is not required, companies sometimes do disclose them.

With contingent liabilities being naturally uncertain, these approaches give business’ some level of certainty to evaluate and make reasonable judgment calls to manage internal and external expectations.


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