What Is an IOU? Definition, Explanation, 14 Facts

Many financial transactions are so routine and informal that a legal contract would seem like overkill. Instead, a number of people prefer to use a less complicated method called an IOU. The article below will tell you all the information about it in the most specific way

What Is an IOU?

An IOU recognizes the existence of a debt. Rather than a legally enforceable contract, an IOU is often seen as an informal written agreement. IOUs date at least to the 18th century and are still widely used today. A more formal written agreement may follow an oral agreement between business partners.

How an IOU Works

As a kind of memorandum of understanding, IOUs are often created on the spur of the moment, such as at the conclusion of a business meeting. They are often followed by a formal written agreement or contract.

What Is an IOU?

IOUs lack a defined structure or vocabulary. Details such as the agreement’s date, the amount of debt, the date of repayment, the parties involved, and the borrower’s signature are (or should be) included at a minimum.

Frequently, however, data such as the interest due, payment method, repayment plan/schedule (including a specified ultimate due date), and repercussions of nonpayment are not provided.

Due to the informal character of the IOU, it is questionable if it is a legally enforceable contract and whether it has much weight in court. Consequently, legal remedies for nonpayment may be more difficult to pursue with IOUs than with more formal debt-related arrangements, such as a promissory note or bond indenture.

Due to this ambiguity, an IOU is often not regarded a negotiable instrument, meaning that it cannot be assigned, transferred, or sold to another party or traded on an open market.

However, there are now downloadable legal templates for IOUs that describe the kind of information a well-written IOU should have. This may make IOUs more enforceable and court-acceptable.

Example of an IOU

Suppose Smithco Bricks puts an order for raw materials but lacks the funds to pay for the complete order when it arrives. Instead, it makes a down payment and provides a promissory note pledging to pay the remainder of the raw materials within 30 days, regardless of interest.

Assuming Smithco maintains a continuous commercial relationship with the supplier, both sides may find this acceptable.

The word IOU is now so prevalent that it appears in numerous situations. A bond issuance is frequently referred to as an IOU, for instance. Informally, accounts receivable may be referred to as IOUs.

What Is an IOU?

Special Considerations

A bookkeeper may record a debt as an IOU. On the balance sheet, the IOU is classified as accounts receivable, which is an asset. How it is precisely documented is determined on the time frame:

  • If the money is due in less than one year, the IOU is classified as a current asset.
  • If the payment is due in more than one year’s time, it is recognized as a long-term asset.

Formal IOUs

Sometimes, formal financial instruments are referred to as IOUs. IOUs on the bond market are an illustration. Bonds, as opposed to promissory notes, are official debt instruments issued by corporations and governments to raise capital.

When an investor acquires a bond, the bond issuer is expected to return the loan with interest within a certain time period, frequently via monthly installments.

In 2009, the state of California introduced registered warrants that may sometimes be referred to as IOUs. In August 2009, the state issued promissory notes to overcome acute financial shortfalls of over $3 billion. These monies financed the general fund commitments of the state of California.

IOU vs. Promissory Note

IOUs are quite similar to promissory notes. Both are written financial agreements that deal with debt, especially the commitment of one party to repay another a certain amount by a specified date.

The primary distinction is that a promissory note is more formal and comprehensive than an IOU.

In addition to specifying the date by which the debt must be returned, the repayment terms often include the interest rate of the loan, the payment schedule, the quantity of installments, and frequently penalties for late or nonpayment.

The contents must include the words “promissory note.” Both parties (lender and borrower) sign the note, which is often witnessed and notarized.

In conclusion, promissory notes are more detailed and serious than bills of exchange. Despite the fact that they are not as formal (or enforceable) as a loan agreement or contract, they are more likely to hold up in court.

What Is an IOU?

In truth, promissory notes often accompany mortgage or student loan agreements, and it is the borrower’s signature on this note that binds him or her to repayment.

If the conditions are sufficiently unconditional, promissory notes may be utilized as negotiable instruments.

When it comes to launching a case for nonpayment, promissory notes are governed by the local state’s statute of limitations.

The clock begins ticking on the date of the first violation for statutes of limitations ranging from three to fifteen years.

Nonetheless, some courts have concluded that, under a promissory note, each missed payment has its own statute of limitations, beginning on the day that payment became delinquent.

What It Means for You

Include your contact information and any repayment conditions, including minimum payments, due dates, interest rates, and late penalties, when utilizing an IOU to loan a considerable sum of money to a family member or close friend. This transforms the IOU effectively into a promissory note. Both sides need to sign the document.

Some may be concerned that entering into a transactional agreement with a family member or close friend might affect their personal connection. However, when money is involved, it is frequently essential to establish clear expectations for both sides.

Not only can clear expectations safeguard the lender’s interests, but they may also provide the borrower with time to consider if they are able to fulfill the requirements of the note. Sometimes, defaulting on a loan might do more harm to a relationship than would explaining the arrangement.

Was the obligation to pay waived or excused by the lender?

One party to a contract may waive their legal right to enforce the contract or a breach of contract if they excuse the other party’s performance, in this instance payment, by rejecting the borrower’s payments and allowing the nonpayment of the debt to continue without making a demand.

In other words, a lender may relinquish their right to collect on a loan if they do not anticipate performance under the terms of the loan and do not sue for breach of contract.

What Is an IOU?

In addition, every contract includes the implicit condition of good faith and fair dealing, which stipulates that neither party will impede the performance of the other.

Therefore, if lender grandmother interfered with borrower granddaughter’s obligation to pay by not accepting payments or leading the borrower to believe a debt was not owed, a court may rule that the borrower’s performance was excused due to the lender’s failure to cooperate with the performance of the paying party.

Did the debt survive the lender’s death?

In general, contract obligations survive death, implying that the parties should be able to collect the benefits of their agreement, since a deal is a deal. However, personal services contracts are an exception, as no one can be expected to undertake the personal services of the deceased contractual party.

At the moment they entered into the contract, the parties intended to have a contractual connection with one another, not a substituted party.

Much depends on whether the contract is seen as impersonal, requiring just payment of money, or personal, including services. However, even agreements to repay a debt in installments have been regarded as personal.

Is an IOU a contract?

A contract needs an offer, acceptance, and consideration to be legally binding. Consideration signifies that each party to the contract provides something of value to the other. Therefore, money donated by one party to pay for the education of another may constitute a contract if the lender receives some advantage or value, such as interest on the loan return.

If there are no payment requirements, no payments received by the lender, and no interest, the “loan” may be declared a gift by law. A court would evaluate whether a written contract was a gift based on the parties’ intents at the time it was signed.

Is the IOU enforceable?

If the IOU has no due date or other payment requirements, so that a court may assess the rights and duties of the parties under the agreement, the agreement may not be enforceable owing to a lack of clarity.

Occasionally, courts will supply essential missing terms based on a reasonableness standard, i.e., what would have been reasonably expected to be the term of the loan, or they will permit parties to testify regarding pre-negotiation discussions in order to supply the missing terms based on the parole evidence rule.

What Is an IOU?

Courts look on the written agreement for interpretation and enforcement, not the parties’ stated intentions.

When a written contract fails, however, meaning that it is lacking the fundamental parts of a contract, the missing aspects may be provided by parole evidence or oral testimony of the parties about what was intended by the contract terms and duties.

Even if the IOU is not a legally binding written contract, it may nonetheless serve as proof of an oral contract.

Was the debt barred statute of limitations?

In some places, the statute of limitations for commencing a lawsuit to enforce a contract is six years, whereas the statute of limitations for a promissory note is ten years. The time period begins when the breach or nonpayment occurs.

However, this may not prevent an estate from pursuing action, particularly if there is no date on the IOU.

The word IOU is not limited to recording informal debts between family and friends. It is sometimes used by financial organizations under certain conditions.

The bond market is one example. Technically speaking, bonds are a sort of promissory note in which a person lends money to a firm or government in exchange for a contract guaranteeing to return the money with interest by a specific date. In spite of the fact that this contract is commonly referred to as a “IOU,” it is in reality legally enforceable.

California Registered Warrants are sometimes referred to as “IOUs.” State of California promissory notes are issued when the treasury is unable to cover an expense quickly. Also, unlike standard IOUs, they are not negotiable.

What Is an IOU?

In Bookkeeping, the word IOU is also occasionally used. In this instance, it refers to an unpaid debt that may be included as a net asset on the balance sheet of the firm or organization in question.

Alternatives to IOUs

IOUs are the most flexible and informal debt notification examples. They lack the legal power of other kinds of note payable. If you want to issue a debt while maximizing your chances of recovering the money due in the event of a default, lenders might use the following strategies:

  • Notes of Promissory: A promissory note is a negotiable document that expresses the commitment to repay a debt. Depending on how the note is structured, the money owing must be paid at a certain future date or might be asked on demand. Smaller lenders most often provide loans secured by promissory notes.
  • Loan Agreements Loan agreements are formal financial contracts that explain the responsibilities of creditors and borrowers in the context of loan repayment. The majority of banks and financial institutions utilize credit reports to make loans to people and companies.


What Is an IOU in Finance?

An IOU is a written acknowledgment that a debt exists between two parties and the amount that the borrower owes the lender.

Signed by the borrower, it often states a date for debt payback, but omits additional information, such as the payment plan or any interest levied. It cannot be sold or transferred, and the lender has little legal remedy if the borrower defaults.

What Is an Example of an IOU?

Karen P., a close friend of Amanda T., needs $1,500 in cash for an apartment security deposit. She must put the money down immediately, but she won’t have that amount for many months. Amanda wants to assist her friend Karen, but she also need documentation of the loan.

Amanda creates a contract stating that Karen owes her, Amanda T., $1,500 by April 1, 2021, three months from now. Document is signed by Karen. In doing so, Karen offers Amanda an official IOU for the $1,500 she has borrowed.

How Do I Write an IOU?

IOUs may take a variety of formats. They may be typed or handwritten, created by either side, and printed on any paper, even the traditional cocktail napkin.

An IOU should include, at a minimum, the borrower’s name, the lender’s name, the amount of the obligation, the current date, the due date, and the borrower’s signature. In addition, it is suggested that IOUs include:

  • How the obligation will be reimbursed (lump sum or installments)
  • An amortization schedule (size and frequency of payments, if in installments)
  • Whether or not interest is charged, and if so, how much?
  • If any, a guarantee for the debt
  • The state whose laws regulate the contract
  • Signing by the lender

Online IOU forms and templates are becoming more prevalent.

Is an IOU a Legal Document?

A promissory note is a legal instrument that may be presented in court, however its enforceability is disputable. Some scholars believe that an IOU is not at all binding; it only acknowledges the existence of a debt. Others believe it is legally binding, but whether it can be implemented is a another matter.

What Is an IOU?

In general, the more specific the IOU, the greater the likelihood that it will be enforced. The less facts an IOU contains, the more difficult it is for a court to ascertain the responsibilities and rights of the IOU’s principals—or even who they are.

Does an IOU Need to Be Notarized?

A note of obligation need not be notarized. Nonetheless, some legal experts believe that affixing a notary’s seal to an IOU makes it more official and, thus, more likely to be enforced.

Undoubtedly, it formalizes the agreement by demonstrating that a third person observed it, hence increasing the likelihood that the lender would triumph in court in the event of a disagreement over nonpayment. Notarization brings an IOU closer to a promissory note, a more formal (and enforceable) document.


An IOU is a written but somewhat informal agreement between two people to repay a debt. It often describes just the essentials of the agreement, such as the loan’s conditions and payback timeline.

Because of this, it is not as legally binding or enforceable as contracts that include specifications and are witnessed and/or notarized.

Generally, IOUs are for modest amounts and between people. However, they may also be utilized by companies, often between two entities with continuing, recurring connections, such as vendors and suppliers.

In effect, the corporation issuing an IOU is taking out a short-term loan or making a purchase on credit, promising to pay for products or services in full at a later date.

The accountants of a company may record any outstanding debt as an IOU. In fact, some accounting methods record all receivables as IOUs.

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