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Tax Attorney vs. CPA: What's the Difference?

Updated for Tax Year 2022 • October 18, 2022 03:47 AM


Tax attorneys and CPAs are two different, but similar, professionals who can help you with taxes and financial planning. Learn what each one does and when you might call on them for help.


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CPAs and tax attorneys

Certified public accountants (CPAs) and tax attorneys are both uniquely qualified and trained professionals that can help you with taxes and financial decisions. Deciding which to hire depends upon your particular set of circumstances and the type of assistance you need. This article will help you understand the training and knowledge of these professionals as well as how they can best help you.

CPA training

Accountants, bookkeepers, and other tax preparers aren't required to undergo the same amount of training, education, or testing as a professional who is a certified public accountant (CPA). In order to be a CPA, individuals must complete 150 hours of college coursework, which is typically 30 hours more than most bachelor's degrees require. This often means that CPA candidates either complete five years of college courses with at least 30 hours at the graduate level, or they complete a master's degree.

On top of the university education, CPAs in all U.S. states must also pass all four parts of the CPA exam:

  • Audit and attestation
  • Financial accounting and reporting
  • Regulation
  • Business environment and concepts

The CPA exam has a high degree of difficulty and breadth of subject matter, and applicants must pass all four parts of the exam within an 18-month period.

Additionally, CPAs in most states must also work for 1,800 hours under the supervision of a licensed CPA. Then, once they are certified, they must continue their training with at least 120 hours of continuing education every three years.

Because of this extensive training and knowledge, a CPA designation is one of the most widely recognized and trusted professional designations in the business world. A CPA also must abide by the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct or risk losing their license.

Tax attorney training

To become a tax attorney, candidates must first obtain a four-year bachelor's degree, typically in math, accounting, or business. Then, they must pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in order to be admitted into a law school. The LSAT measures skills in areas related to legal work, such as reasoning, analysis, and reading comprehension. Even with a high score on the LSAT, law school candidates often have to undergo a lengthy and rigorous admissions process to be admitted.

Law students earn a Juris Doctor degree (J.D.), which typically takes three years to complete. Then, to obtain a state certification, tax attorneys must pass their state's bar exam. Many tax attorneys also go on to obtain an advanced degree in tax law, which can take up to five additional years of study.

Additionally, licensed attorneys must complete continuing legal education to maintain active bar membership in their states. Each state bar association provides guidance and mandates regarding who can advertise themselves as tax attorneys. Tax attorneys must abide by rules and regulations or risk losing their license to practice law.

Tax attorney vs. CPA: Choosing who to hire

Whether you need to hire a CPA or a tax attorney depends upon your tax needs. You should most likely hire a CPA if you need help with the business and accounting side of taxes, such as:

  • Filing taxes
  • Finding all the tax deductions and credits you qualify for
  • Bookkeeping or preparing financial documents
  • Managing payroll
  • Financial planning or budgeting advice
  • Keeping up with tax reform or changes to tax law
  • Acquiring, merging, or selling a business
  • Taking out a small business loan
  • Determining the right business structure
  • Deciding between cash or accrual accounting
  • Creating financial risk management strategies
  • Undergoing an IRS audit
  • Monitoring finances to prevent fraud

When it comes to the legal side of taxes, CPAs can negotiate and represent a taxpayer before the IRS or a revenue officer. Additionally, some CPAs are specially qualified to be able to help with litigations and tax controversies that need to be resolved in a U.S. Tax Court, so if you’re already working with a CPA, you should ask if the accountant is qualified to help with the specific legal issues you are facing. Of course, tax attorneys are also able to help with these legal issues. Some areas where you may choose a CPA or an attorney to assist are:

  • If you owe large amounts of back taxes
  • If you are facing liens or levies due to unpaid taxes
  • If you want to halt wage garnishment
  • If you want to negotiate with the IRS
  • If you need help with trusts or estates

You should most likely hire a tax attorney if you need:

  • Legal advice in writing
  • Representation in court

Find the right fit

Whether you need a CPA or tax attorney to help with your particular situation, it's important to find the professional who will work best with you. For instance, when hiring a CPA, look for someone who works with clients in financial situations similar to yours, whether you're the beneficiary of a family trust or the owner of an LLC. Make sure you understand what the CPA will require from you and that you feel comfortable speaking with the CPA about your personal or business finances. Often, you'll hire a CPA to work with you for many years, so you'll want to pick someone you trust.

When looking for a tax attorney, you'll want to look for someone who specializes in an area that meets your needs. Because of the extreme complexity of tax law, many tax attorneys often focus on one area of expertise, so it's important to ask about their experience in those areas when deciding on the attorney you'll hire. You'll want to make sure you can communicate effectively with the attorney and that you feel you can trust them to get the job done.

Be proactive

Whether you're thinking about hiring a CPA or a tax attorney, it's important to be proactive rather than waiting for problems to arise. You can often schedule a free consultation with a prospective CPA or tax attorney to discuss your needs and determine your next steps.

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