Home » Share Market » What Is a Contingent Liability?

What Is a Contingent Liability?

Companies face uncertain situations that can lead to significant financial losses. These potential liabilities are hard to quantify but can impact profitability if they materialise. Companies report these as ‘contingent liabilities’ in their financial statements to keep investors informed. However, identifying and valuing contingent liabilities involves complex accounting standards. Mistakes can undermine stakeholder trust or expose companies to higher risks

This article explains effective strategies for managing contingent liabilities, with advice on collaborating with experts, communicating with stakeholders, and structuring insurance or provisions to mitigate financial downsides.

Understanding contingent liabilities

Contingent liabilities are potential obligations that a company may have to pay in the future, depending on certain events. These obligations are not certain, unlike provisions which are estimated and recorded in a company’s accounting books. However, companies are required to disclose these potential obligations in the notes to the financial statements as per accounting standards.

What constitutes a contingent liability?

For a potential obligation to be classified as a contingent liability, it must fulfil the following criteria:

1. An obligation is something a company may have to do in the future that it can’t completely control. For example, if a company is being sued, and it’s not clear what the outcome of the lawsuit will be, the company might have to pay money or do something if it loses the lawsuit.

2. It is not very likely that we’ll have to spend any money to meet our obligations. In summary, the probability of having to make a payment is below 50 per cent.

3. It can be challenging to determine the exact amount that we owe, making it difficult to keep track of a definite cost.

Common examples of contingent liabilities

Some common examples of contingent liabilities are:

  • Pending litigation outcomes, which may result in payouts
  • Guarantees issued by the company on behalf of third parties
  • Claims against the company not acknowledged as debt 
  • Letters of credit issued by banks on behalf of the company
  • Bills discounted with banks, which may devolve later if not paid by customers
  • Government demands under dispute but not provided for
  • Taxation liabilities where fresh assessment may lead to additional demands

Treatment of contingent liabilities in financial statements 

As contingent liabilities do not fulfil the criteria for recognition as liabilities, they are not recorded in the body of financial statements. However, they need to be adequately disclosed as per the applicable accounting standards.

The various ways in which contingent liabilities are treated are:

1. Disclosed separately as notes giving details of their nature and, if practicable, quantitative estimates

2. Disclosed under commitments and contingencies

3. Referred to as part of another note like property, plant and equipment (litigations on land)

4. Disclosed as part of the accounting policy note 

Based on the probability of occurrence, contingent liabilities may further be classified as:

1. Probable: Greater than 50% – disclosed on the face of the balance sheet

2. Possible: Less than 50% – disclosed in the notes 

3. Remote: Slight chance – no disclosure required

Contingent liabilities Vs provisions  

While both relate to future uncertainties, contingent liabilities and provisions differ in terms of their accounting treatment:

  • Provisions are recognised as liabilities because the outflow of resources is probable and can be reliably estimated. Contingent liabilities do not fulfil these recognition criteria.
  • Provisions reflect the present value of the expected expenditure. Contingent liabilities represent possible obligations whose amounts depend on uncertain future events.
  • As provisions are recorded in books, they impact the income statement through charges to P&L. Contingent liabilities do not impact P&L unless they become provisions or actual liabilities.

Therefore, provisions translate into greater certainty of an expense compared to contingent liabilities.

Contingent assets and liabilities

Contingent assets are potential assets that a company expects to receive in the future, but they are still determined. For example, a company might win a legal case and expect to receive a payment, but the payment still needs to be confirmed. Such assets are only counted as actual assets once they become certain. 

On the other hand, contingent liabilities are potential obligations that a company might have to pay in the future, and they are disclosed even if the probability of payment is low.

Implications of contingent liabilities

The presence of material contingent liabilities can have significant implications for investors and stakeholders:

  • They represent off-balance sheet obligations that may potentially impact a company’s financial position adversely if they materialise
  • Significant contingent liabilities relative to net worth can present liquidity and higher bankruptcy risks
  • It may require changes in operating plans or financing arrangements to fund large unanticipated payouts
  • Share prices tend to react negatively to the adverse development of contingencies 
  • The presence of contingencies makes an assessment of intrinsic net worth difficult due to the uncertainties involved

Therefore, investors should review notes on contingent liabilities carefully and be aware of their nature and potential financial impact on the company.

Accounting for contingent liabilities

Even though some debts and responsibilities may not be officially documented, companies need to disclose them in their financial reports. This helps to give a clear picture of any potential risks or obligations that could impact the business in the future.

Normally, material changes in contingent liabilities from the previous period are disclosed through:

  1. Additional notes explaining the details, uncertainties, outlook, etc.
  2. Supplementary schedules and quantitative information
  3. Management commentary bringing out the underlying developments

Companies that provide sufficient disclosures on contingent liabilities follow prudent accounting practices and allow investors to make informed decisions.


Contingent liabilities are future obligations based on uncertain past events. Companies should disclose information about them to investors, categorise them based on likelihood, and account for them properly to ensure transparency and accountability in financial reporting.


What are contingent liabilities in financial reporting?

Contingent liabilities refer to potential obligations arising from past events that may result in future outflows depending on the outcome of uncertain events not wholly within the entity’s control. For example, pending litigation whose outcome is uncertain.

What is the accounting treatment for contingent liabilities?

Contingent liabilities are not recognised in the books of accounts. However, they need to be disclosed adequately in the financial statement notes based on the probability of occurrence. Companies assess if an outflow is probable, possible or remote to determine the extent of disclosure required.

How are contingent liabilities different from accounting provisions?

Provisions are recognised as liabilities because their outflow is considered probable, and the amount can be reliably estimated. In contrast, contingent liabilities do not qualify for recognition due to uncertainty in occurrence or the inability to quantify them reasonably.

Do contingent liabilities impact the income statement?

No, contingent liabilities are off-balance sheet items that do not impact the income statement directly. Only then, such contingencies materialise into actual liabilities and result in payouts would there be a hit on the company’s profitability.

Why should investors analyse notes on contingent liabilities?

Notes on material contingent liabilities are important for investors to assess the company’s risks, liquidity positions and intrinsic net worth accurately. Adverse developments in contingencies not factored in by the market can negatively impact share prices when they transpire.

Enjoyed reading this? Share it with your friends.

Post navigation

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *