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How to Choose a CPA

Tax time is often when people start thinking about whether or not they need a CPA, although there are so many other reasons to seek out a CPA. When it comes time to finding the best professional for your needs, there are a variety of things to consider.

The difference between CPAs and other tax preparers

One of the more important things to remember when you’re seeking tax help is that pretty much anyone can call themselves a “tax preparer.” It’s true that the IRS has a public online database of tax preparers who obtained a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN), which is required for anyone to prepare a federal return for compensation, but there are no education or experience requirements to obtain a PTIN or be listed in the IRS database.

Choosing the best tax professional for you will greatly depend on what it is that you need help with. Not all tax preparers are CPAs and not every CPA is a tax preparer, but when it comes to working with a CPA to prepare your taxes, having your return prepared accurately by a knowledgeable tax expert can save you both time and money. It can also help prevent possible IRS penalties or audits in the future. In addition, you can expect a CPA to help you beyond just preparing and filing your tax returns.

Beyond just taxes

Due to the demanding education and testing requirements that a CPA must fulfill, you’ll find that their expertise goes beyond just preparing and filing an accurate tax return on your behalf.

CPAs work with clients all year long, not just during tax season. Your CPA can typically help you with a wide range of issues, including future tax planning, college or retirement savings plans, or business issues.

Many CPAs hold the Personal Financial Specialist credential, which signifies additional expertise in the area of personal finance. If you’re looking for year-round conversations that go beyond just taxes for proactive planning toward reaching your personal life goals, a CPA/PFS may be the expert you seek.

Finding the best CPA for you

So how do you know which CPA is the right one for you? To answer that question, it’s a good idea to consider exactly what you will be seeking from a CPA beyond just tax preparation. Areas of expertise that can help you filter the various CPAs out there include:

  • Retirement and education savings planning
  • Personal financial planning for your life goals
  • Proactive planning for all your financial concerns
  • Starting and running a business
  • International and multi-state tax planning
  • Financial planning for your side hustle

Use the Find a CPA database to narrow down practitioners who fit the goals you need their assistance with. For CPA Financial Planners, make sure you search for the CPA/PFS designation.

Interviewing potential CPAs

The next step is to begin interviewing. CPAs usually develop deep and trusting relationships with their clients over a long period of years, so you’ll want to be sure you’re choosing someone with whom you’ll enjoy working. As you’re meeting with potential CPAs, don’t hesitate to ask questions to help you understand whether they are the right fit for your needs. 

Questions to ask include:

  • What type of clients make up most of your practice? Your goal should be to find a CPA who works with clients who are similar to you and your family.
  • What services do you perform for your clients and which do you most enjoy? This is a helpful way to get to know your CPA better while also making sure they typically provide the services you are seeking.
  • How can you help me save money or lower my taxes? A CPA will not be able to give you detailed answers to this question without having specific information about your finances. However, he or she should be able to discuss possible options to help you improve your financial situation.
  • Can I call you for advice during the year? One of the many advantages of working with a CPA is the fact that you can tap into their extensive knowledge for questions about any number of financial issues. If you believe you will need advice in the future, ask your CPA about his or her policies and availability. Most are available for year-round conversations and expect to be involved in making sure your goals are on track beyond just tax time.
  • Are there clients I can contact for references? CPAs should be happy to put you in touch with clients who can discuss what it’s like to work with them, and ideally those clients should be people like you, who either have similar needs or work in similar industries as you.
  • How do you charge for the services I need? Neither you nor your CPA want there to be surprises when it comes time to bill you for their services, so make sure you are clear and comfortable with this answer in order to start your relationship on the best foot.

These questions can serve as a starting point for evaluating CPAs, but you may have many others based on your unique financial situation. You’ll find that the information you gather will be very helpful in your efforts to find the right CPA for your needs.  

One final tip

It’s a best practice to avoid waiting until February or March to start interviewing for a CPA when you’re looking for tax preparation help – that’s the busiest time of year for them and you may find it difficult to schedule any meetings that aren’t strictly about getting your taxes done for the year. The best time to interview CPAs is in the summer and fall, when they aren’t quite as busy and are likely to have more time to focus on getting to know you better as well.

To get started, visit: FIND A CPA