Whether you're a first time entrepreneur or you're unhappy with your current accountant, finding the right accountant for your small business is an important part of any business plan. But learning how to find the right one goes beyond a Google search.
When choosing the right accountant, especially for solopreneurs and early stage business owners, the right tax professional can provide thought out strategies to ensure personal and business fiscal matters are well taken care of. However, what attributes do you look when selecting an accountant?
Firm Service Evaluation
The first thing to do is look at the accounting firm and see if it’s a good fit. Along with accounting firms, generally speaking, providing auditing, tax advisory services, record-keeping and accounting and business advisory services, there are ancillary business services that may be complementary to your own circumstances. Additional services that may be available include management consulting, creating and implementing a financial information system or reviewing transactions for future financing needs.
Initial Consultation Considerations
Understanding a firm's operating procedures can determine what level of comfort you'll have during routine tax preparation obligations or audits. Other questions include asking how responsive they are to questions, how much experience the firm has in your industry, their education, licenses (e.g., CPA-designation) and references you can speak with before retaining their services.
Determining how fees work is another important topic to discuss. Are fees charged hourly or is it on a monthly retainer? This is one example to make sure you're on the same page with an accountant or CPA. If there's new expenditures or you simply want a better handle on cash flow, sitting down with an accountant once a month can be an option to see opportunities where costs can be cut or redirected to more efficiently use money. Discussing fees for a monthly or quarterly sit-down with a CPA before agreeing to it can be a long-term investment in a business to help discover waste and opportunities for investment.
Taking the time to understand your business' financial needs by interviewing a variety of accountants and CPAs with questions relevant to your business' needs will increase the chances of finding the right accountant.
Otherwise known as a Certified Public Accountant, this financial professional helps individuals and organizations including businesses, government agencies and non-profit organizations stay current with business accounting, and tax and government filing requirements. CPAs also help clients and organizations with strategic financial planning goals. Example tasks that CPAs perform include auditing, cash management and financial forensics. Other tasks CPAs are involved in include budget development, and looking at tax implications for past budget decisions and how to make future budget decisions based upon current tax regulations.
According to the American Institute of CPAs, no less than 150 semester hours of education, which includes a concentration in accounting classes, is required to sit for CPA certification. While a master's degree is not required to obtain certification, there are different routes to accomplish this educational requirement. One route includes obtaining both an undergraduate and master's degrees in accounting. Another option is to obtain a master's degree in accounting or an MBA with an accounting focus if their undergraduate degree was not in accounting. A third option includes enrolling in a five-year program that grants a student a master's degree in accounting. It is known that each state and federal territory has individual requirements for CPA certification.
CPA Educational Requirements & Considerations
Along with meeting this education requirement, many, but not all, states require accountants have at least two years of experience before being able to sit for the exam. Depending on the state and applicant, a certificate may be issued upon passing the exam, but the CPA license isn't issued until the requisite experience is earned. Similar to education and initial licensing requirements, there are state-specific requirements to maintain CPA licensure depending on each state’s requirements.
Enrolled Agents are authorized by the United States Treasury to represent tax payers before the IRS in administrative tax proceedings. Examples where EAs can represent clients include examination, collections or appeals proceedings. EAs are also able to act as a tax consultant and help clients with state and federal tax return filings.
Enrolled Agents Qualifications
Individuals looking to become an EA must meet the following criteria set by the Internal Revenue Service. First time applicants must hold a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PITN), have filed all required tax returns and not have any tax liabilities. From there, applicants must pass the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE). The SEE exam contains three parts. It evaluates a candidates' knowledge and competency relating to tax information and return preparation related to individuals and business for the first two parts. The final section evaluates practices and procedures for EAs and the necessary requirements they must following during proceedings.
Applicants who are former IRS agents may be able to obtain this status without taking the SEE. Based on Circular 230, former IRS agents with experience implementing or administering IRS regulations concerning employment, estate, gift, income or excise taxes may be exempt from the SEE. IRS agents must also have a minimum of five years in a taxpayer-engaging role such as a settlement officer, revenue agent or officer, tax or tax law specialist, appeals officer, special agent. Of the minimum five years of applicable experience, three of the years must have occurred within the applicant's five last years of service to the IRS.
In order to maintain enrolled agent status, EAs must fulfill 72 hours of continuing education courses and maintain ethical standards to hold this licensure.
The term Tax Professional, as the Internal Revenue Service defines it, encompasses a broad category of occupations that share tax preparation roles and responsibilities. While an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) is required by a professional to put together federal tax returns, different tax professionals can represent tax filers under different circumstances. Attorneys, Enrolled Agents and Certified Public Accounts have “Unlimited Representation Rights.” This class of professionals may provide representation for clients during an appeal, audit or remittance matter.
If a tax professional does not hold any of the three professional licenses, the ability to represent clients is much more limited through the so-called "Limited Representation Rights" designation. PITN holders that participate in the "Annual Filing Season Program" may only represent individuals before the IRS if they have prepared and executed a client's taxes and may only do so in front of customer service and revenue agents (or similar), which also encompasses the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Along with not being authorized to represent clients if tax returns have been prepared by anyone else, representation for collection or appeals matters before the IRS is not permitted regardless of who prepared the tax return.
For tax preparers with a PITN only, they only have "Limited Representation Rights" for tax returns they prepared and submitted on or before Dec. 31, 2015. For tax returns beginning on Jan. 1, 2016, these professionals are only authorized to prepare tax returns.
Anyone who can prepare a tax return is a Tax Practitioner, but not all practitioners are professionals. Professionals have a certain level of representation rights before the IRS. Here's a link to the IRS for more information
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