Contingent liability

A contingent liability is a potential loss that may occur at some point in the future, once various uncertainties have been resolved. It is not yet an actual, confirmed liability.

There are three scenarios for contingent liabilities, all involving different accounting treatments. They are:

  • Record a contingent liability when it is probable that the loss will occur, and you can reasonably estimate the amount of the loss. If you can only estimate a range of possible amounts, then record that amount in the range that appears to be a better estimate than any other amount; if no amount is better, then record the lowest amount in the range. “Probable” means that the future event is likely to occur.
  • Disclose the existence of the liability in the notes accompanying the financial statements if the contingent liability is reasonably possible but not probable, or if the liability is probable, but you cannot estimate the amount. “Reasonably possible” means that the chance of the event occurring is more than remote but less than likely.
  • Do not record or disclose the contingent liability if the probability of its occurrence is remote.

Examples of contingent liabilities are the outcome of a lawsuit, a government investigation, or the threat of expropriation.

For example, ABC Company files a lawsuit against Unlucky Company for $500,000. Unlucky’s attorney feels that the suit is without merit, so Unlucky merely discloses the existence of the lawsuit in the notes accompanying its financial statements. Several months later, Unlucky’s attorney recommends that the company should settle out of court for $75,000; at this point, the liability is both probable and can be estimated, so Unlucky records a $75,000 liability. A possible entry for this transaction might be:

  Debit Credit
Legal expense 75,000  
     Accrued liabilities   75,000

When Unlucky later pays ABC company in the out-of-court settlement, the final entry is:

  Debit Credit
Accrued liabilities 75,000  
     Cash   75,000

When you record a liability in the accounting records, this does not mean that you are also setting aside funds to pay for the liability when it must eventually be paid – recording a contingent liability has no impact on cash flow.