When confronted with solving a tax problem, taxpayers have a number of choices including dealing with the issue themselves, hiring a CPA or retaining a tax attorney versed in the tax problem being addressed. Due to the intricacies and far reaching impact of income tax law, engaging a CPA or tax attorney may be advantageous to the taxpayer.
A CPA (certified public accountant) has completed the requisite university courses, passed examinations and met all other licensing and experience requirements to be certified by the state. CPAs are experts in accounting, auditing financial statements and the preparation of income tax returns for corporations, non profits and individuals. CPAs are also employed in industry, non profits or government as accountants, auditors, treasurers, chief financial officers (CFO) and other accounting, financial or executive positions. For example, the IRS hires an army of professional accountants and auditors.
The individual state boards grant the CPA designation and license. CPAs may also belong to the national association, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). A CPA can also be a member of the state association. CPAs are mandated to fulfill continuing education requirements and follow the associations code of conduct.
An attorney is a professional licensed to provide legal advice, practice law or conduct lawsuits on behalf of clients. A tax attorney is a specialist attorney in assisting taxpayers to solve tax problems with the IRS or the state Franchise Tax Board. An attorney can also be called a lawyer or counselor. To be licensed as an attorney, one must have obtained a degree in professional law from an accredited law school and successfully completed a state bar examination.
While the Statement of Principles (National Conference of Lawyers and CPAs 1951) recognizes that nonlawyers may be admitted to practice before the United States Tax Court, it states that a CPA should advise a client who has received a notice of deficiency to consult an attorney, because the client should be advised of the possibility of litigating the matter through a refund suit in the district court of the Claims Court rather than before the Tax Court. When a CPA learns that a client is being investigated for possible criminal violations of the tax laws, he or she should promptly advise the client to seek the advice of a lawyer as to the clients legal, constitutional rights and the related privileges. An attorney can plead a taxpayers case in a court of law. In limited cases a CPA can make a presentation to the Court, however this is not a good idea especially if the accountant prepared the tax return in question.
The Attorney-client privilege is a legal concept that protects communications between an attorney and the client. The attorney is bound to keep these communications confidential. Any communication between a CPA and a client is not held confidential.
When a taxpayer is trying to solve a tax problem it is not a matter of either or. Taxpayers can consider their CPA as vital as their tax attorney and quite so. A taxpayer could utilize the services of both a tax attorney and a CPA to resolve a pressing IRS tax situation. The main difference is that a CPA cannot litigate in district court and a CPA does not have privileged communication with the client.