Error of Principle: Definition, Classifications, and Types

What Is an Error of Principle?

An error of principle is an accounting mistake in which an entry violates a fundamental principle of accounting or a fundamental accounting principle established by a company. These errors typically involve accounting entries recorded with the correct amount but in the incorrect account.

Key Takeaways

  • Errors of principle typically include correct amounts but violations of company accounting principles.
  • Common errors of principle range from mixing up debits and credits to potentially debiting the wrong client account in an accounts receivable transaction.
  • Resolving errors of principle after final financial statement reporting has been released is typically the most costly for a company in both resolution and reputation.

Understanding Error of Principle

Companies strive to hire experienced employees and incorporate protocols that help to mitigate accounting errors but errors can still happen. If they do occur and are identified, companies and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) provide guidance for correcting them. Many companies, particularly large companies with complex accounting, may also purchase errors and omissions (E&O) insurance, which provides some monetary protections if substantial errors are found.

Errors of principle are often simply accounting entries recorded in the incorrect account. The amounts are often correct, unlike an error of original entry. Oftentimes, the error of principle is a procedural error, meaning that the value recorded is correct but the entries are made in the wrong accounts. These types of errors can be difficult to identify if they occur because they can still lead to appropriate balancing of debits and credits on the balance sheet, as well as appropriate summations carrying over to the income statement and cash flow statement.

Errors of principle can also be a concern when a company changes an established principle already in processing to another, new principle. From time to time, companies may change certain principles within GAAP parameters to better represent their company’s activities or to integrate a new type of dashboard metrics monitoring system that helps them more efficiently manage the performance measures of a business.

While GAAP is not law, not abiding by its parameters can ultimately result in costly ramifications such as damage to a company's reputation.

Examples of Errors of Principle

At a base level, accounting professionals are responsible for learning and maintaining a working knowledge of the account categories a company uses on its balance sheet. These categories are particularly important because they lead to the analysis of asset and liability balances on the balance sheet. Account categories also flow over into the income statement where expenses are reported as either direct, indirect, or capital expenses.

The complexity of a company’s balance sheet accounts can affect how easily errors of principle can be initiated. Most companies keep their balance sheet expense accounts fairly simplified as to avoid the potential for errors of principle. Common expensing accounts for current liabilities include: accounts payable, notes payable, wages payable, and taxes payable. The appropriate expensing entries would be to debit the liability account and credit an asset account. Using the wrong liability accounts or crediting the wrong type of asset account would result in an error of principle. Mixing up the credits and debits or potentially debiting the wrong client account in an accounts receivable transaction can also be common errors.

When a company incorporates a new type of reporting or integrates new account categories within its asset and liability reporting, errors of principle can become more likely. This can happen when a company overhauls its reporting to create new business segments. New business segments may be integrated from time to time as a company grows or enters into a new segment. Taking extra care to ensure that errors of principle do not occur in these transitions will be very important for a company’s accounting success.

Different types of errors in accounting can be classified as errors of original entry, errors of duplication, errors of omission, errors of commission, errors of entry reversal, compensating errors, and errors of principle.

Resolving Errors of Principle

Discovering an error of principle usually takes some detective work, since looking at a trial balance, which contains the name of the account and its value, only shows whether debits equal credits. How the error is corrected will depend on the type of error.

Many errors of principle will be detected before a company issues its final financial statements at the end of a reporting period. Errors may be found in the final review of reporting or spotted by financial managers working in conjunction with accounting teams on performance reporting. If an error of principle is identified prior to the release of a final financial report, it can be most easily resolved by making appropriate correcting entries to reverse and appropriately categorize the transaction. In most accounting systems this is a fairly straightforward move that results in a fast resolution.

If an error of principle is identified after final financial statements are released, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) requires companies follow Accounting Standards Codification 250 under GAAP to make necessary resolutions. Errors found after financial statement releases can be the most harmful both in cost and reputation. These types of errors will typically require some type of restatement or disclosures for shareholders.

If an error is drastic enough, a company may file a claim for coverage under its errors and omissions insurance policy, if one is in place. E&O insurance can provide monetary remuneration for errors of principle made by employees, negligence, or company policies.

What Are Common Accounting Errors?

In addition to error of principle, common accounting errors include errors of original entry, errors of duplication, and errors of omission. Other examples include errors of commission, errors of entry reversal, and compensating errors.

Who Must Comply With GAAP?

Public companies in the United States must follow generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) when issuing financial statements. Outside of the U.S., companies adhere to the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).

Who Oversees GAAP?

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) sets the standards for GAAP. The  Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforces accounting standards.

The Bottom Line

An error of principle is an accounting mistake that is typically recorded in the wrong account. The sooner one is detected the better, such as before a company publishes a financial statement. If discovered after a financial statement is released, an error in principle can end up being costly to a company.

Article Sources
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  1. QuickBooks. “10 Common Types of Errors in Accounting.”

  2. BDO. “Accounting Changes And Error Corrections.”

  3. Financial Accounting Standards Board. "Standards."

  4. Nationwide Insurance. "Errors & Omissions Insurance."

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