SYNOPSIS: The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) are in the process of jointly re-examining their conceptual frameworks. The re-examination includes assessing the definition of a liability. The Boards’ existing liability definitions include three criteria: (1) a present obligation; (2) a past transaction or event; and (3) a probable future sacrifice of economic benefits. The Boards have recently proposed that a liability be defined as “a present obligation for which the entity is the obligor” (FASB 2008c, 2). The proposed definition mentions only one time dimension (the present). References to the past and future are omitted. This paper argues that these omissions are undesirable. Omitting a reference to the past removes the link between the definition and the tradition of historically based financial statements. More importantly, however, the failure to reference future sacrifices of economic benefits divorces the definition from the primary objective of financial reporting: to provide information about the “amount, timing and uncertainty of an entity’s future cash flows” (FASB 2008a, para. OB6). This paper offers an alternative definition that emphasizes the past and future rather than the present.

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