Any amount owed as the result of a purchase of goods or services on a credit basis. Although a firm making a purchase issues no written promise of payment, it enters the amount owed as a current liability in its accounts. Companies often incur this type of short-term debt in order to finance their inventories, especially in industries where inventory turnover is rapid. Seealso account receivable.
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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 or credit cards. 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.
Commonly, a supplier will ship a product, issue an invoice, and collect payment later, which creates 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.
Expense administration is usually closely related to accounts payable, and sometimes those functions are performed by the same employee. The expense administrator verifies employees' expense reports, confirming that receipts exist to support airline, ground transportation, meals and entertainment, telephone, hotel, and other expenses. This documentation is necessary for tax purposes and to prevent reimbursement of inappropriate or erroneous expenses. Airline expenses are, perhaps, the most prone to fraud because of the high cost of air travel and the confusing nature of airline-related documentation, which can consist of an array of reservations, receipts, and actual tickets.
Petty cash is also usually paid out by AP personnel in the form of a check made out to an employee, who cashes the check at the bank and puts the cash in the petty cashbox.
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, AP 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 AP 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 number. As Mary S. Scheiffer (now with Accounts Payable Now & Tomorrow at www.ap-now.com) points out in Accounts Payable: A Guide to Running an Efficient Department, "Depending on the controls in place, the second payment may or may not be caught! The phenomenal growth of payment recovery firms gives testimony to the fact that this is a serious issue in corporate America today."
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 year end.
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