CPA, Tax Attorney, or Enrolled Agent: Which Pro Is the Right One to Take on Your Tax Troubles?

Anyone can print up a business card proclaiming to be a tax expert. But for honest-to-goodness guidance in such complicated tax problems as back tax resolution, tax settlement negotiations, IRS audits, and the like, you need a tax help practitioner with the specialized training and skills to match your situation.

For the most part, today’s tax professionals are differentiated by the government agency that monitors and regulates their business and by the type of tax problems they handle in their practice. While the services they provide can overlap at times, the three types of tax advisors that have standing to appear in place of a taxpayer before the Internal Revenue Service are enrolled agents, certified public accountants, and tax attorneys.

Probably the least recognized of the three, enrolled agents are federally licensed and authorized by the U.S. Department of Treasury to represent taxpayers before the IRS in a number of pertinent tax issues, including audits, collections, and appeals. To earn the title of enrolled agent, an individual must successfully pass a comprehensive exam given by the IRS covering all aspects of the tax code. Enrolled agents are also required to complete at least 16 hours of continuing education each year and adhere to a strict code of IRS ethics. Many enrolled agents limit their work to a specific tax area, though, so if you consult this type of practitioner, be sure to inquire about his or her area of expertise. You can learn more about enrolled agents by visiting the Web site of the National Association of Enrolled Agents at

Certified public accountants or CPAs are the second category of tax professionals with the credentials to appear on a taxpayer’s behalf before the IRS. Licensed and regulated by the states, a CPA must pass a state’s qualifying accounting exam, earn continuing education credits, and periodically renew his or her state license to remain in active practice. Considering their expertise in accounting and bookkeeping services, CPAs are usually recommended to prepare tax returns and may offer the best guidance when it comes to record keeping and the complex financial situations caused by lifestyle changes such as divorce, retirement, and closing a business. Not all CPAs are skilled in taxation matters, however, so remember to review each practitioner’s experience and knowledge when seeking a tax advocate. The Web site of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants,, is a good resource for additional information.

The last of the practitioners with standing before the IRS, but certainly not the least, is the tax attorney. As the name implies, a tax attorney is a lawyer who specializes in taxes. Armed with advanced degrees and the backing of state bar associations, tax attorneys come with a higher fee but they can prepare sophisticated personal and business tax returns as well as provide a far more in-depth understanding of intricate tax laws. In particularly complex legal areas of taxation, such as structuring a business, tax settlement negotiations, or criminal tax matters, that deeper level of advice can be critical. And, as the only type of tax advisor empowered with attorney-client privilege, a tax attorney can provide an extra layer of security for your personal and business tax matters. To get a list of reputable tax attorneys in your area, check with the local chapter of your state bar association.

Whether your tax issues are state or federal, personal or business, they should never be taken lightly. Neither should your choice of a tax professional. So don’t make a decision until you’ve done your homework. Consult with each type of tax practitioner and determine which one fits your circumstances as well as your comfort level. Because knowing the differences in advisors could make all the difference for you.