It is necessary to write off a bad debt when the related customer invoice is considered to be uncollectible. Otherwise, a business will carry an inordinately high accounts receivable balance that overstates the amount of outstanding customer invoices that will eventually be converted into cash.
There are two ways to account for a bad debt:
- Direct write off method. The seller can charge the amount of an invoice to the bad debt expense account when it is certain that the invoice will not be paid. The journal entry is a debit to the bad debt expense account and a credit to the accounts receivable account. It may also be necessary to reverse any related sales tax that was charged on the original invoice, which requires a debit to the sales taxes payable account.
- Provision method. The seller can charge the amount of the invoice to the allowance for doubtful accounts. The journal entry is a debit to the allowance for doubtful accounts and a credit to the accounts receivable account. Again, it may be necessary to debit the sales taxes payable account if sales taxes were charged on the original invoice.
In either case, when a specific invoice is actually written off, this is done by creating a credit memo in the accounting software that specifically offsets the targeted invoice.
Of the two methods presented for writing off a bad debt, the preferred approach is the provision method. The reason is based on the timing of expense recognition. If you wait several months to write off a bad debt, as is common with the direct write off method, the bad debt expense recognition is delayed past the month in which the original sale was recorded. Thus, there is a mismatch between the recordation of revenue and the related bad debt expense. The provision method eliminates this timing problem by requiring the establishment of a reserve when sales are initially recorded, so that some bad debt expense is recognized at once, even if there is no certainty about exactly which invoices will later become bad debts.