Accounts payable is money owed by a business to its suppliers shown as a liability on a company's balance sheet. It is distinct from notes payable liabilities, which are debts created by formal legal instrument documents.
An accounts payable is recorded in the Account Payable sub-ledger at the time an invoice is vouched for payment. Vouchered, or vouched, means that an invoice is approved for payment and has been recorded in the General Ledger or AP subledger as an outstanding, or open, liability because it has not been paid. Payables are often categorized as Trade Payables, payables for the purchase of physical goods that are recorded in Inventory, and Expense Payables, payables for the purchase of goods or services that are expensed. Common examples of Expense Payables are advertising, travel, entertainment, office supplies and utilities. A/P is a form of credit that suppliers offer to their customers by allowing them to pay for a product or service after it has already been received. Suppliers offer various payment terms for an invoice. Payment terms may include the offer of a cash discount for paying an invoice within a defined number of days. For example, 2%, Net 30 terms mean that the payer will deduct 2% from the invoice if payment is made within 30 days. If the payment is made on Day 31 then the full amount is paid.
In households, accounts payable are ordinarily bills from the electric company, telephone company, cable television or satellite dish service, newspaper subscription, and other such regular services. Householders usually track and pay on a monthly basis by hand using cheques, credit cards or internet banking. In a business, there is usually a much broader range of services in the A/P file, and accountants or bookkeepers usually use accounting software to track the flow of money into this liability account when they receive invoices and out of it when they make payments. Increasingly, large firms are using specialized Accounts Payable automation solutions (commonly called ePayables) to automate the paper and manual elements of processing an organization's invoices.
Commonly, a supplier will ship a product, issue an invoice, and collect payment later, which describes a cash conversion cycle, a period of time during which the supplier has already paid for raw materials but hasn't been paid in return by the final customer.
When the invoice is received by the purchaser, it is matched to the packing slip and purchase order, and if all is in order, the invoice is paid. This is referred to as the three-way match. The three-way match can slow down the payment process, so the method may be modified. For example, three-way matching may be limited solely to large-value invoices, or the matching is automatically approved if the received quantity is within a certain percentage of the amount authorized in the purchase order.
A variety of checks against abuse are usually present to prevent embezzlement by accounts payable personnel. Segregation of duties is a common control. Nearly all companies have a junior employee process and print a cheque and a senior employee review and sign the cheque. Often, the accounting software will limit each employee to performing only the functions assigned to them, so that there is no way any one employee – even the controller – can singlehandedly make a payment.
Some companies also separate the functions of adding new vendors and entering vouchers. This makes it impossible for an employee to add himself as a vendor and then cut a cheque to himself without colluding with another employee. This file is referred to as the master vendor file. It is the repository of all significant information about the company's suppliers. It is the reference point for accounts payable when it comes to paying invoices.
In addition, most companies require a second signature on cheques whose amount exceeds a specified threshold.
Accounts payable personnel must watch for fraudulent invoices. In the absence of a purchase order system, the first line of defense is the approving manager. However, A/P staff should become familiar with a few common problems, such as "Yellow Pages" ripoffs in which fraudulent operators offer to place an advertisement. The walking-fingers logo has never been trademarked, and there are many different Yellow Pages-style directories, most of which have a small distribution. According to an article in the Winter 2000 American Payroll Association's Employer Practices, "Vendors may send documents that look like invoices but in small print they state "this is not a bill." These may be charges for directory listings or advertisements. Recently, some companies have begun sending what appears to be a rebate or refund check; in reality, it is a registration for services that is activated when the document is returned with a signature."
In accounts payable, a simple mistake can cause a large overpayment. A common example involves duplicate invoices. An invoice may be temporarily misplaced or still in the approval status when the vendors calls to inquire into its payment status. After the A/P staff member looks it up and finds it has not been paid, the vendor sends a duplicate invoice; meanwhile the original invoice shows up and gets paid. Then the duplicate invoice arrives and inadvertently gets paid as well, perhaps under a slightly different invoice.
Auditors often focus on the existence of approved invoices, expense reports, and other supporting documentation to support cheques that were cut. The presence of a confirmation or statement from the supplier is reasonable proof of the existence of the account. It is not uncommon for some of this documentation to be lost or misfiled by the time the audit rolls around. An auditor may decide to expand the sample size in such situations.
Auditors typically prepare an aging structure of accounts payable for a better understanding of outstanding debts over certain periods (30, 60, 90 days, etc.). Such structures are helpful in the correct presentation of the balance sheet as of fiscal year end.