Friday, October 14, 2011


Joe Arsenault, a CPA, has a great post in “CPA or EA? It’s Just a Designation” at his blog CAFÉ TAX. 

Joe’s post is a response to “an interesting conversation (that) has been taking place for a while in one of the CPA forums I follow. The conversation compares the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Enrolled Agent (EA) designation. The question that started it all was ‘what is the better designation to get?’.

The post does a good job of describing the scope and requirements of each of these designations.

Everyone knows what a CPA is (Constant Pain in the Arse – just joking), but not everyone is familiar with the initials EA. As Joe points out above they stand for “Enrolled Agent”.  Many of those who have heard of the initials EA are confused about what they mean.

An Enrolled Agent is not an agent or employee of the Internal Revenue Service.  He/she is “enrolled” to act as a taxpayer’s “agent” when dealing with the IRS. Prior to the creation of the RTRP designation, EA was the only set of initials that indicated that its holder was knowledgeable, experienced, and current in federal individual income taxes.

For years it has been suggested that a better designation be found for the EA to avoid the confusion.  I do believe that in the course of the IRS institution of its preparer regulation regime EAs were given the chance to pick a new name for their designation, but they chose to keep it as Enrolled Agent.

I have been an accountant and tax preparer for about 40 years, yet I am neither a CPA nor an EA (although at one point early in my career I did work for one of the then “big eight” CPA firms).  Over the years I have investigated the various proposed non-EA tax preparer designations (i.e. several attempts at a CTP – Certified Tax Preparer) but none of these carried the same weight or credibility as EA, or actually lasted very long. 

The basic thing a CPA can do that a “just plain” accountant cannot is certify an audit.  And the thing an EA can do that I cannot is represent taxpayers before the IRS (without a Power of Attorney).  I have never had any desire to audit financial statements or to represent taxpayers, other than in audits of clients whose 1040s I have prepared, before the IRS.

In the course of his discussion Joe makes an excellent point -

I want potential candidates to realize that their work and character will determine their level of success, not their designation.

While I have said for years that having the initials CPA after one’s name does not mean the person knows his/her arse from a hole in the ground about taxes, I have also said – While it may actually be possible that the best tax preparer, at the best price, for your particular situation is either a CPA or an H+R Block, or other fast-food chain, employee, this is only because of the education, experience, ability, temperament, and other factors that are specific to that individual preparer.

I wholeheartedly agree with Joe’s final assessment (the highlights are mine) -

“EAs focus on completely on taxes and CPAs may or may not focus on taxes. If you are someone who only wants to do tax work an EA may be the smart choice. CPAs are more involved in financial accounting, industry and other areas such as financial planning. I know many people who are CPAs but they can’t prepare their own tax return. Not all CPAs are tax professionals. There is nothing wrong with that.

I would add that if a person wants to concentrate on taxes but also do accounting work, but not certify audits, for clients he/she does not need to become a CPA.  You can be a designated Public Accountant (PA), which may require registration and/or licensure in some states, or, like me, a “just plain” accountant.

As an aside, I like that Joe supports my position on exempting CPAs from the IRS competency test for tax preparers (again the highlight is mine) -

I will also raise the point about designations and PTIN requirements and would suggest only exempting EAs from the testing requirements.

FYI Joe used to publish a BUZZ-like weekly CAFÉ BEANS post, highlighting posts he felt would be of interest to his readers from other tax and personal finance bloggers.  He no longer publishes a separate BEANS post, but does reference such items at the end of each of his posts.  Thanks to Joe for frequently including TWTP posts, and for plugging my TWTP posts in his “tweets”.



Joe Arsenault said...

Thanks for the response Robert. I am happy that the post I wrote was appreciated. Being an opinionated piece, you never know if others will agree with you or if you will get roasted!

Good work is good work no matter what letters you have, and vice-versa. Bottom line. I wish more people would understand this.


Daniel said...

I enjoyed reading your post and finding a lot of ideas for myself.
You did really great job on the subject and I think the Internet would be much better if there were more of such bloggers like you.

Unknown said...

Friends all nice post I also share with you something. Make sure that the Accountant has previous experience of dealing with contractors. Ask him or her how many contractors he or she has on their books. There is a morass of legislation, like IR35, that is aimed specifically at freelancers and it is crucial that your Accountant is up-to-date with all the legislation. Make sure that the Accountant has previous experience of your sector. If, for example, you are an IT Contractor, it is very useful if the Accountant has good knowledge of the sector. Choose the size of Accountancy firm that suits you. Some people may prefer to go with a large organisation with vast experience of the business but where you may be dealing with someone low down the organisation. Others may prefer a small firm where you are dealing with the owner or partner of the Accountancy company. Meet up with several Accountancy firms and let them know that you are doing this so that you can get the best offer for the best service. Decide beforehand whether you want the Accountant to do all the admin or whether you are happy to do a lot of the book-keeping with the Accountant mainly giving advice and doing your end-of-year returns. Once you have decided yourself what you want to do and what you want the accountant to do you can then ask the price. Ask the Accountant for a full list of services that they can provide as you may not have though of everything.
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Brandon said...

This is a great post, Robert. I was under the impression that CPA stood for "car parking associate". Haha. In all seriousness, the IRS seems to be doing their best to further legitimize the EA designation and suck the CPA credential into it. Their latest stunts over the past few years with PTINs are a good example.

I don't know if I could say that either one is better than the other. They both different and capable of different things. For example, you probably wouldn't look to an EA to prepare financials for your company.

A lot of what makes one better than the other is public opinion. The CPA credential has been around for so long. It is synonymous with tax, compliance, and accounting work. Many "regular" people have never even heard of an EA. In this respect, it's a PR game.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting debate. Great post!