What Are the Different Kinds of Tax Preparers, and What Do They Specialize In?

Every year in April, everyone begins scrambling to complete and file his or her taxes. Although many people prepare their own taxes, a business owner or someone with significant assets and investments needs to use a professional’s services. There are many kinds of tax preparation services and tax planning professionals. Some of these are Enrolled Agents, CPA’s, and attorneys. What is the difference between a tax preparation service and an Enrolled Agent?

Tax Preparations Services

Most people are familiar with tax preparation services, such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt. These services will prepare and file your yearly return for a fee, and often offer refund advance loans. Many smaller such services exist all over the country. Usually they are staffed with certified professionals such as accountants, although some may hire experienced nonprofessionals or accounting students. Be careful using an uncertified tax preparer, because they may not know the tax code well and miss deductions.


Individuals can be certified as tax preparers in many ways, but the CPA is the most common. A Certified Public Accountant has to attend secondary school and receive a degree in accounting. They are licensed by their state, and take yearly continuing education classes for re-certification. Accountants do not just prepare taxes; they also give financial, business and tax planning advice. Some CPAs work for tax preparation services full- or part-time. It is recommended that large businesses keep a CPA on retainer. Any CPA should display their most recent credentials or offer them openly.

Tax Attorneys

Attorneys can choose to specialize in a certain area of the law, just like doctors. Some choose tax law, which can be a very lucrative specialty. Tax attorneys are there to assist their clients in tax disputes, to set up tax shelters, draw up paperwork for corporate tax measures, and more. They are not specialists in filing actual returns. A tax attorney is good to have on retainer for a larger corporation, as they know the tax code well and can advise how to invest and what deductions might be best for the business. Check with the local Bar Association to find out if the attorney you are considering is well qualified.

Enrolled Agents

An Enrolled Agent (EA) is different from a CPA in the scope and training of their job. EA’s are certified by the IRS to represent taxpayers. They do not have a set training course, but do have to pass a certification exam and get continuing education. An EA is a tax specialist who advises taxpayers in audits, investigations, and can prepare taxes. They have client privacy obligations, unlike other most tax preparers. An authorized agent is also the only taxpayer representative designated by the federal government. There are only about 49,000 EA’s in the US, and they should display their credentials prominently.

Different Areas of Expertise

CPA’s are financial jacks-of-all-trade. Their certification exam has 1000 questions, only about a quarter of which deal directly with taxes. Most accountants focus more on actual accounting practices and only actively work on taxes during tax season. Their advice and guidance is very important for running a business efficiently. An Enrolled Agent, however, specializes only in taxes. Their exam covers every part of the tax code and does not include accounting and business principles. They have passed a very strict exam to become an EA in the first place, plus yearly Continuing Education classes and tests.

Practical Application

A company should have a CPA on retainer all year, to give advice on business matters as well as taxation. Their services are invaluable for running a business efficiently and profitably. While an Enrolled Agent will charge slightly less than a CPA, their services are more limited. If you or your business have specific tax problems, it might be best to call an enrolled agent instead of a CPA. They are bound by EA-Client privacy privileges, and are extremely experienced in tax matters, especially audits. A tax attorney should be retained by corporations or people with a high net worth to take proactive measures to shelter their income.

Tax preparation services can and do employ all types of tax professionals. When it is time to choose your tax-planning professional, determine the extent of your needs first. If you are an individual with a straightforward return, a tax service or CPA will work fine. If you fear an audit or need special representation to the IRS, employ and enrolled agent. For legal tax matters, hire a tax attorney. Each of these financial advisors can do their job within the scope of their specialization, but are not necessarily interchangeable.

Brittney Herbert

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