Tax Attorney, CPA, or Enrolled Agent: Who’s the Right Tax Professional for You?

Depending on your specific tax filing or resolution needs, you’ll need a pro with a certain skill set. Learn the differences between the various experts to ensure that you hire the right person.

Federal, state, and local tax codes are complicated, and can be overwhelming even if you’re filing a fairly basic tax return. Because the Internal Revenue Service takes its regulations and deadlines seriously, it’s always a good idea to seek professional help if you’re in doubt about any portion of your tax return, or if you’re dealing with back taxes. But with all of the experts advertising their services, how do you know who’s right for your needs?

Tax attorneys, accountants, and enrolled agents are all knowledgeable and skilled in dealing with IRS matters. However, they differ in terms of how they’re trained and, in some instances, in what services they can offer a client. Before you begin shopping around for a tax advocate, consider what type of assistance you require. Then, look for a pro who offers those services.

Tax Attorneys

A tax attorney is a bar-certified lawyer who specializes in tax law. That means that if you need advice about specific legal points-especially related to business tax laws or international tax issues-hiring a tax attorney might be the way to go. Tax attorneys are trained in negotiation strategies that can help you secure a tax settlement with the IRS, if you’re dealing with back debt. They can also represent you in a court of law if you’re filing a suit against the IRS or if you’re facing criminal charges. Finally, hiring a lawyer gives you the benefit of attorney-client privilege.

Certified Public Accountants

CPAs are trained and licensed in financial matters, including tax codes. If you need someone to dig through your financial records with a fine-toothed comb to find an error or to figure out how to maximize your deductions, an accountant may be right for the job. Unlike many tax attorneys, CPAs will also help you file tax returns and can help you plan for the future, from estimated tax payments to investments and savings. While an accountant cannot represent you in a court of law, he can represent you in tax settlement negotiations with the IRS, and in the event of a tax audit. Overall, CPAs are a great resource for financial advice and assistance that’s not specifically tied to legal issues.

Enrolled Agents

An enrolled agent is a tax professional who has been licensed by the IRS. Many enrolled agents are former IRS employees, but some may have taken a separate licensing examination covering all aspects of the tax code. Enrolled agents can offer tax help including tax return filing, audit representation, tax settlement negotiation, and other tax resolution strategies. Unlike CPAs, they don’t offer general financial advice, and unlike tax attorneys, they cannot assist you once your tax problems become legal problems, as well. However, enrolled agents are highly knowledgeable about tax matters, and in some cases, that’s the only expertise you need.

If you’re in doubt about how much help you need, consider calling a tax firm to inquire about an initial consultation to discuss your tax issues. You may encounter problems you hadn’t considered, or you may realize that your situation is not as serious as you’d feared. Keep in mind that of the three options, tax attorneys will generally be the most expensive, because they offer the most specialized legal and IRS assistance. If you’re working with a tight budget, choose someone who is licensed to give you only the help you need to ensure that you aren’t paying for services you don’t require. Above all, try to seek professional help as soon as you have concerns or realize that you have a problem. The longer you wait to bring in an expert, the worse-and more expensive-your tax problems will become.