What Is an Onerous Contract?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An onerous contract is an agreement that offers more costs than benefits to one party. For example, a contractor might agree to build a home at a set price, only to have a spike in raw materials pricing drive the cost of construction past the expected earnings from the project. In accounting statements, onerous contracts need to be included as liabilities for a business, as they reflect expenses that must be met. These statements may include notes to discuss the type of contract and the situation, providing context for readers.

An onerous contract is an agreement that offers more costs than benefits to one party.
An onerous contract is an agreement that offers more costs than benefits to one party.

When contracts are established, both parties usually take steps to make sure they receive fair consideration from the deal. This may include a variety of forms of compensation including not just cash and assets, but also things like reputation; for example, someone might buy a florist in order to retain the name, along with getting the facility and all the equipment. Subsequent events can create an onerous contract, where one party has an excessive obligation.

Subsequent events can create an onerous contract, where one party has an excessive obligation.
Subsequent events can create an onerous contract, where one party has an excessive obligation.

Increases in raw material prices and changes to market conditions are examples. The obligated party needs to keep fulfilling the contract, even at personal cost. Examples can be seen in manufacturing, where companies may end up producing products and receiving less than they cost to make, or business, where companies might be stuck with a lease they cannot use. It would be too expensive to exit the contract, and activities like bankruptcy may not necessarily clear the obligation. Someone making installment payments on a business, for example, still needs to repay the seller if the company fails.

For accounting purposes, the handling of an onerous contract can vary, depending on the specifics of the situation. It may be considered a direct liability, as it involves an expense unavoidably incurred due to prior obligations. In the case of a lease, a company may be able to use asset impairment, arguing that the value of the lease has declined because the company can no longer use it, and thus it should be counted differently on financial statements.

Opinions from accounting authorities are available for companies deciding how to handle an onerous contract. Consistent handling is critical; accountants use decisions made by a single authority in order to prepare statements to ensure their accuracy and reliability. Once they decide how to handle an onerous contract, they need to continue to handle it in the same way, unless circumstances radically change.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Logicfest

@Terrificli -- different companies handle that problem in different ways, but most seem to rely on fuel surcharges. That simply means that both parties recognize that the price of fuel floats so the surcharge reflects the actual price of diesel fuel the trucking company incurred.

Terrificli

The trucking industry has been dealing with this problem for years. Fuel prices are nothing if not volatile, and it makes sense that trucking companies simply can't afford to operate unless those prices are passed on to customers. Trucking, after all, operates on very thin margins -- competition is fierce so there is a lot of pressure to keep costs low. A sudden spike in fuel prices could sink a company.

How do they deal with rising fuel prices? Certainly they can't sit down and renegotiate a bunch of contracts every time that happens.

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