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  • Daniel Rodriguez

The Difference Between a CPA and a Tax Lawyer in California

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

For those unfamiliar with accountancy, taxation, and the law, there is often a bit of confusion when considering who to go to with financial or tax problems. In many cases, the roles these individuals can play overlap – but in many areas, these professionals have distinct roles. In some cases, there may even be clear factors that, if you were unaware of them, could cause you serious problems. The Roseville, CA tax lawyers at The NewPoint Law Group, LLP explain some of the difference between tax lawyers and CPAs, and the potential benefits of using a tax attorney.

CPA vs. Tax Attorney

One clear distinction between a certified public accountant (CPA) and a tax attorney is right there in the name: attorney. For many non-legal and non-financial people, this distinction may not immediately mean much. First, tax lawyers are required to pass the bar exam in their state and maintain certification as a licensed attorney. The California State Bar Association does not require every attorney to go to law school, but the vast majority of lawyers – and all the attorneys at NewPoint Group – have graduated from law school. This means a high level of training and understanding in the law is a must. Alongside a grasp of what the law is, attorneys have training in how to counsel their clients, how to handle problems with government agencies and law enforcement, and how to appear before a judge and advocate for your position.

CPAs, on the other hand, are accountants. This means they are trained in accountancy – tracking and projecting expenses and budgeting. Many CPAs focus their practice on taxes, and this makes sense; the vast majority of taxation and filing taxes is accounting for income and expenses, then relaying this info to the IRS. However, CPAs are not always trained in what the law is, and may not always have your best interests at heart.

This is by no means intended to disparage CPAs. In many instances in taxation, accountants have similar training to tax attorneys. CPAs are required to go to college, and must pass a CPA test to be certified. In fact, many CPAs go on to get special training and education, including masters degrees (typically an M.S.) in taxation. However, these degrees, as well as an LLM in taxation (“Master of Laws” degree) are also available to attorneys.

Advantages of Hiring a Lawyer for Tax Issues

Without a legal background, CPAs may not have the proper training to find tax breaks, and may not have the skills and education to justify these breaks if the IRS comes knocking. Additionally, when you work with an attorney, you have multiple protections to keep your privacy and avoid being taken advantage of, such as:

  1. Attorney-Client Privilege: While CPAs must keep your information confidential, courts can still order them to give up information of your accounts and financial records. On the other hand, all discussions regarding legal advice between a client and their lawyer are private, and cannot be reached by a court. This is known as “privilege,” and is stronger than “confidentiality” – and it is not always available with accountants.

  2. Legal Ethics Rules: Lawyers have rules that they must follow in order to keep their license to practice. Many of these ethics rules deal with advocating for your client’s best interests, keeping them informed of their choices, and avoiding additional issues. CPAs have ethics rules, too, but they are not as strong as those for lawyers.

  3. Conflicts of Interest: If you use a CPA for tax services the IRS eventually audits or investigates you, the CPA may need to protect him- or herself during the investigation. This may put your CPA against you. Attorneys have a duty of loyalty to current and former clients, and cannot violate privilege or confidentiality to protect themselves.

  4. Representation: Lawyers are the only ones authorized to represent clients in court, and that ability to represent extends beyond the courtroom to government investigations, IRS audits, and negotiations. A CPA may be able to represent you in financial situations and even before the IRS during an audit, but they cannot stand up and advocate for your interests in court without being a lawyer.

The decision of whether to hire an attorney or a CPA may come down to your specific needs. Both attorneys and CPAs can help you file and plan your taxes. But, if you need advice on what the law says, need representation during a difficult time, or have come across legal issues because of a CPA’s advice, you may need a tax attorney. However, if you need accountancy or bookkeeping advice, you may need to seek out a CPA instead.

Roseville Tax Lawyers

The Roseville and Sacramento tax lawyers at the NewPoint Law Group, LLP represent people facing lawsuits from the IRS, tax audits, back taxes, and other tax law issues. In many cases, hiring a CPA may set you up for potential issues, or cannot fulfil your needs. For a free consultation with our tax attorneys, and to see if hiring a tax lawyer is right for you, call 800-358-0305 today.

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