The IRS estimates there are more than 1 million individuals preparing tax returns for a fee, and many of these tax preparers do not have credentials. However, there are several good reasons why someone who already prepares taxes professionally should go to the time and effort of getting credentialed. In short, becoming what is known as a Circular 230 practitioner sets you apart from other tax preparers in the eyes of prospective clients and the IRS.
Benefits of Credentials in the Eyes of Clients and Prospects
Clients hire tax professionals because they want to have confidence their taxes are accurate, and if there is a problem, they have an advocate in their corner. Tax preparer credentials provide that confidence and more. Clients and prospects instantly recognize that credentialed tax preparers have worked hard to become an expert in your field. Having these credentials supports higher fees than uncredentialed preparers, and helps drive more referrals from happy clients.
Another key advantage is receiving concurrent correspondence when your client gets a notice. When clients get notices, they assume the worst – that something is terribly wrong and the taxman is coming for them. Credentialed tax professionals usually designate on the return to get copied if there is an issue and have the opportunity to be proactive with clients.
Benefits of Credentials in the Eyes of the IRS
Circular 230 sets out how tax preparers should conduct themselves and the minimum level of competence the IRS believes that practitioners should possess. Credentialed practitioners are the most respected by the IRS and the state taxing authorities, and include attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents (EAs). Additionally, Annual Filing Season Program (AFSP) participants are considered qualified professionals. Circular 230 also references enrolled retirement plan agents, but their rights to practice before the IRS are limited, as are the AFSP participants.
Only attorneys, CPAs and EAs enjoy unlimited representation rights, meaning they can represent clients on any matters, including audits, payment/collection issues and appeals. AFSP participants have limited representation rights and can only represent clients whose returns they prepared and signed, but only before revenue agents, customer service representatives and similar IRS employees, including the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Limited representation rights authorize the tax professional to represent you if, and only if, they prepared and signed the return. They can do this only before IRS revenue agents, customer service representatives and similar IRS employees. They cannot represent clients whose returns they did not prepare. They cannot represent clients regarding appeals or collection issues, even if they did prepare the return in question.
For returns filed after Dec. 31, 2015, the only certified tax return preparers with limited representation rights are AFSP participants. Whether you are an attorney, CPA or EA, you are a credentialed professional with the background and education to represent taxpayers, and have consented to comply with Circular 230.
How to Get Credentialed
To become a CPA in most states, you must have 150 hours of college, with a large amount of those hours in the accounting discipline. Then, you must pass an exhaustive exam with the largest emphasis on accounting, not taxes, before you are awarded the CPA credential by the state accountancy board. You are then limited to practice only in the state in which you are licensed. Each state is different, but most have a continuing education requirement.
Although many EAs have degrees in accounting and/or tax, it is not a requirement to become enrolled. However, applicants are required to pass a test comprised of three parts, covering all types of taxes and a full understanding of Circular 230. Upon successful completion of the exam, the IRS will conduct a tax compliance and background check of each applicant before bestowing the EA credential. The credential is renewable every three years upon proof of satisfactory completion of 72 hours of continuing education, with a requirement of two hours of ethics each year. An EA has unlimited right to practice before the IRS.
The AFSP is an optional IRS program that aims to recognize the efforts of non-credentialed return preparers who aspire to a higher level of professionalism. The AFSP requires at least 18 hours of continuing education from IRS-approved continuing education providers. Included in the 18 hours is a six-hour annual federal tax law refresher course that covers filing season issues and tax law updates, followed by successfully completing a knowledge-based comprehensive test administrated at the end of the course. An additional 10 hours of other federal tax law topics and two hours of ethics are also required. In addition, you must also consent to adhere to specific practice obligations outlined in Subpart B and section 10.51 of Circular 230, and have an active Preparer Tax Identification Number.
As the head of an organization representing EAs – and an EA myself for more than 15 years – this is the path to becoming credentialed that I know best and the path I can recommend without reservation. If you think you have what it takes to become one of America’s tax experts, I urge you to visit the National Association of Enrolled Agents’ website to learn how you can become an EA.
Regardless of the path you choose, becoming credentialed will help set you apart in the marketplace and enable you to provide a higher level of service to your clients.
About the National Association of Enrolled Agents
The National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA) is a nonprofit membership organization composed of tax specialists licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department. EAs are the only federally licensed tax practitioners who specialize in taxation and also have unlimited rights to represent taxpayers before the IRS.