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What is a Certified Public Accountant and What Does a CPA Do?
Certified Public Accountants have many different career paths and options available to them. That’s why this certificate is so popular. However, the main two career paths include public accounting and industry accounting.
Let’s look at both:
Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is the title of qualified accountants in numerous countries in the English-speaking world. In the United States, the CPA is a license to provide accounting services to the public. It is awarded by each of the 50 states for practice in that state. Additionally, almost every state (49 out of 50) has passed mobility laws to allow CPAs from other states to practice in their state. State licensing requirements vary, but the minimum standard requirements include passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, 150-semester units of college education, and one year of accounting related experience.
Continuing professional education (CPE) is also required to maintain licensure. Individuals who have been awarded the CPA but have lapsed in the fulfillment of the required CPE or who have requested conversion to inactive status are in many states permitted to use the designation “CPA Inactive” or an equivalent phrase. In most U.S. states, only CPAs are legally able to provide attestation (including auditing) opinions on financial statements. Many CPAs are members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and their state CPA society.
What Does a CPA Do in a Public Accounting Firm?
There are a variety of different jobs that a CPA performs at a CPA firm in the public accounting industry. Here are a few.
Auditing and Review
One of the main jobs a certified public accountant performs in public accounting is auditing client financial statements and issuing an opinion of the statements. Basically, the auditor is recognized as an unbiased third party who reviews and evaluates the financial statements prepared by management. Based on the audit, the CPA gives an opinion of the financial statements disclosing whether any material misstatements were found.
Ultimately, all public companies are required by the SEC to have a CPA firm audit their financial statements before they are issued to shareholders and the public.
Tax Preparation and Services
One of the most popular and well-known career paths for a CPA is in the tax preparation industry. This includes preparing all different types of client tax forms from property taxes to income taxes. This also includes advising clients on tactics and strategies of how to structure their affairs to minimize tax burdens.
CPAs are engaged in many different types of consulting services to help their clients identify business problems and run their operations more effectively. Some consultations include evaluating internal controls and identifying possible operational improvements.
Forensic Accounting Services
Far too often employees or owners embezzle money from the company. Most of the time embezzlement schemes aren’t caught until some time after the initial event. It could take months or even years to uncover a complicated embezzlement scheme.
CPAs are often hired to dig through financial records, identify if money was stolen, and report all fraudulent activities that were uncovered.
Financial Planning and Business Valuation
CPAs are often engaged to advise clients when the best time to sell a business is and how to transfer it to another person.
During the evaluation process and planning stages, they also inform their clients of the tax ramifications of selling or transferring a business. This is common in estate and succession planning.
Although CPAs are not licensed to practice law, they are often used by attorneys to find and prove evidence as an expert witness in the courtroom. This is common in divorce proceedings, bankruptcies, and business mergers/acquisitions/splits.
There are several different jobs that CPAs perform outside of the scope of public accounting. Here are a few of them.
CPAs make great managers because they understand finance, operations, and how to improve profitability.
Along the same lines, CPAs make great CEOs, CFOs, and COOs because they understand the inner workings of a company. It’s not uncommon for a company to hire a certified public accountant as the CFO or COO.
Just like for-profit companies, non-profit organizations need leadership and financial managers who can give advice and guide the organization on how to use its funds the best way.
CPAs are often appointed to the board of non-profits and help manage the day-to-day operations.
The government employs CPAs for a variety of different jobs. The IRS, FBI, military, and Congress itself uses CPAs in different capacities. There are a ton of different opportunities for accountants at every level of government from local to federal.
Most accounting professors at major universities are certified. Although this isn’t a requirement, it is important seeing as they will be telling students to go become a CPA.
There are a bunch of different things that CPAs are legally allowed to do that a non-certified accountant is unable to do. Here are a few examples.
Non-certified accountants are not allowed to audit public companies, issue audit reports or opinion letters, or review public company financial statements for the SEC. The SEC only allows a CPA firm to perform these services.
The IRS gives certified public accountants special privileges that non-certified accountants don’t get. A CPA is allowed to sign a clients’ tax return as a paid preparer and represent the client in front of the IRS. These privileges are also awarded to enrolled agents and attorneys.
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