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What Is a Liability?

What Is a Liability?

A liability, in simple terms, refers to an obligation that a person or company owes to another party, often involving the payment of money, goods, or services. This article delves into the intricacies of liabilities, exploring their various types, examples, and their distinction from assets. By the end, you'll have a comprehensive understanding of this essential financial concept.

Understanding Liability

At its core, a liability signifies a debt or obligation that one party has towards another. In the context of accounting, a financial liability is derived from prior business transactions, events, or agreements, and it involves the anticipation of economic benefits to be exchanged at a later date. Liabilities are documented on the right side of the balance sheet, providing a clear picture of a company's financial commitments and obligations.

Types of Liabilities

Liabilities can be broadly categorized into two groups: current (short-term) liabilities and non-current (long-term) liabilities.

Current (Short-Term) Liabilities

Current liabilities are obligations that are expected to be settled within a year or a normal operating cycle. These include:

  1. Accounts Payable (AP): Money owed to suppliers for goods and services received but not yet paid for.
  2. Wages Payable: Accrued wages earned by employees but not yet disbursed.
  3. Interest Payable: Interest on short-term credit purchases yet to be paid.
  4. Dividends Payable: Amount owed to shareholders after declaring dividends.
  5. Unearned Revenues: Liabilities for advance payments received for goods or services to be delivered in the future.

Non-Current (Long-Term) Liabilities

Non-current liabilities extend beyond a year and include obligations like:

  1. Long-Term Debt/Bonds Payable: Larger liabilities, usually representing loans obtained through issuing bonds.
  2. Warranty Liability: Estimated costs of future product repairs covered by warranties.
  3. Contingent Liability: Liability dependent on uncertain future events.
  4. Post-Employment Benefits: Liabilities related to employee retirement benefits.
  5. Unamortized Investment Tax Credits: The difference between historical cost and depreciated amount of assets.

Liabilities vs. Assets

Liabilities are the counterpart to assets in the accounting equation. Assets represent what a company owns, while liabilities represent what it owes. The relationship between assets, liabilities, and equity is defined by the equation:

Assets = Liabilities + Equity

Liabilities vs. Expenses

Liabilities should not be confused with expenses. Expenses are costs incurred to generate revenue and are recorded on the income statement. Liabilities, on the other hand, are recorded on the balance sheet and represent obligations.

Example of Liabilities: AT&T

For a practical understanding, let's analyze AT&T's 2020 balance sheet. The balance sheet separates current and non-current liabilities, providing insight into the company's financial obligations.


Liabilities play a pivotal role in the financial landscape of individuals and businesses. They encapsulate obligations that can significantly impact decision-making, financial stability, and strategic planning. By comprehending the types, examples, and distinctions between liabilities and other financial concepts, individuals and entities can navigate the complex realm of finance with confidence and clarity.

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