Accounts receivable (A/R) is one of a series of accounting transactions dealing with the billing of a customer for goods and services he/she has ordered. In most business entities this is typically done by generating an invoice and mailing or electronically delivering it to the customer, who in turn must pay it within an established timeframe called "creditor payment terms."
An example of a common payment term is Net 30, which means payment is due in the amount of the invoice 30 days from the date of invoice. Other common payment terms include Net 45 and Net 60 but could in reality be for any time period agreed upon by the vendor and the customer.
While booking a receivable is accomplished by a simple accounting transaction, the process of maintaining and collecting payments on the accounts receivable subsidiary account balances can be a full-time proposition. Depending on the industry in practice, accounts receivable payments can be received up to 10 - 15 days after the due date has been reached. These types of payment practices are sometimes developed by industry standards, corporate policy, or because of the financial condition of the client.
On a company's balance sheet, accounts receivable is the money owed to that company by entities outside of the company. The receivables owed by the company's customers are called trade receivables. Account receivables are classified as current assets assuming that they are due within one year. To record a journal entry for a sale on account, one must debit a receivable and credit a revenue account. When the customer pays off their accounts, one debits cash and credits the receivable in the journal entry. The ending balance on the trial balance sheet for accounts receivable is always debit.
Business organizations which have become too large to perform such tasks by hand (or small ones that could but prefer not to do them by hand) will generally use accounting software on a computer to perform this task.
Associated accounting issues include recognizing accounts receivable, valuing accounts receivable, and disposing of accounts receivable.
Accounts receivable departments use the sales ledger. Accounts receivable is more commonly known as Credit Control in the UK, where most companies have a credit control department.
Since not all customer debts will be collected, businesses typically record an allowance for bad debts which is subtracted from total accounts receivable. When accounts receivable are not paid, some companies turn them over to third party collection agencies or collection attorneys who will attempt to recover the debt via negotiating payment plans, settlement offers or legal action. Outstanding advances are part of accounts receivables if a company gets an order from its customers with payment terms agreed in advance. Since no billing is being done to claim the advances several times this area of collectible is not reflected in accounts receivables. Ideally, since advance payment is mutually agreed term, it is the responsibility of the accounts department to take out periodically the statement showing advance collectible and should be provided to sales & marketing for collection of advances. The payment of accounts receivable can be protected either by a letter of credit or by Trade Credit Insurance.
Companies can use their accounts receivable as collateral when obtaining a loan (asset-based lending) or sell them through factoring. Pools or portfolios of accounts receivable can be sold in the capital markets through a securitization.
Bookkeeping for accounts receivable
Companies have two methods available to them for measuring the net value of account receivables, which is computed by subtracting the balance of an allowance account from the accounts receivable account.
The first method is the allowance method, which establishes a liability account, allowance for doubtful accounts, or bad debt provision, that has the effect of reducing the balance for accounts receivable. The amount of the bad debt provision can be computed in two ways - either by reviewing each individual debt and deciding whether it is doubtful (a specific provision) or by providing for a fixed percentage, say 2%, of total debtors (a general provision). The change in the bad debt provision from year to year is posted to the bad debt expense account in the income statement.
The second method, known as the direct write-off method, is simpler than the allowance method in that it allows for one simple entry to reduce accounts receivable to its net realizable value. The entry would consist of debiting a bad debt expense account and crediting the respective account receivable in the sales ledger.
The two methods are not mutually exclusive, and some businesses will have a provision for doubtful debts and will also write off specific debts that they know to be bad (for example, if the debtor has gone into liquidation.)
For tax reporting purposes, a general provision for bad debts is not an allowable deduction from profit - a business can only get relief for specific debtors that have gone bad. However, for financial reporting purposes, companies may choose to have a general provision against bad debts in line with their past experience of customer payments in order to avoid over stating debtors in the balance sheet.