taxes

4 ways to spy on your CPA

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Highlights
  • CPAs must adhere to a strict code of professional conduct.
  • Firms that perform specialized tasks are required to go through a peer review.
  • You might want a CPA-PFS if you want to talk about your overall financial planning strategy.

How much do you really know about the guy who does your taxes?

Vetting a prospective certified public accountant, or CPA, should involve more than just asking your doctor or golfing buddy for a referral.

Whether you're checking out several CPAs cold turkey or just looking for information on a handful of candidates suggested by friends and family, here are four questions that will help you scope out their background before turning over your financial records.

1. Is your accountant a CPA?

A CPA must have a minimum of a four-year degree, spend a specified amount of time (which varies by state) apprenticing for a practicing CPA and pass a certification exam, says Sheri Bango Cavaney, vice president of the New York-based American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In most states, CPAs must also complete 120 hours of continuing education every three years, she says.

By doing that, a CPA has "demonstrated expertise in the accounting and finance subjects that are critical," says Andrea Millar, CPA and senior technical manager for the institute.

In addition, CPAs must adhere to a strict code of professional conduct, and if there is any conflict of interest, they must "disclose that clearly to a client," Millar says.

The best way to find out about your accountant is to check with your state's CPA society. You can find yours on the AICPA website.

These state organizations typically have a consumer or public resources section where you can locate a CPA by name or city. Can't find it? Go to the search bar on the society's home page and type "find a CPA." Some states, like Florida, even have a search section with that label. Search by the individual's name or the firm name.

CPAs are not required to be members of the AICPA or a state CPA society, says AICPA spokesman Joel Allegretti. So if a CPA isn't listed, you can check with your state board of accountancy which licenses CPAs.

2. Has your CPA faced disciplinary action or had his license revoked?

Finding this information is a two-step process. If your CPA is an AICPA member, you can find out if he's been disciplined by the institute by checking on the AICPA website. You can retrieve details by putting his name in the site's search box.

 

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If your CPA has been disciplined, it's important to note the reasons why, says Allegretti, "There is a whole range of situations where the (institute) would discipline a member," he says. Those could include not returning client records, disclosing confidential client information and not exercising due care in preparing a tax return, he says.

To find out if a CPA's license has been revoked, you should check with your state board of accountancy, says Bango Cavaney.

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