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CPA or lawyer: Who do you need for your tax issue?

When you have a tax issue to resolve, it can be difficult to know if the matter is best resolved through a certified public accountant (CPA) or a qualified tax attorney. In most situations, the particular circumstances will determine if one or the other, or both, are needed.

Both CPAs and tax attorneys are qualified to provide advice and planning strategies to taxpayers, and in many cases both can represent you in U.S. Tax Court matters. In many cases, however, that is where the similarities end. So how do you know what type of tax professional you need?

There are several areas where services provided by CPAs and attorneys can overlap, sometimes to the detriment of a case. This can include when an attorney prepares a tax return, thereby waiving attorney-client privilege, or when a CPA amends a previously-filed tax return, which can be viewed by the IRS as the taxpayer admitting they misstated income or expenses.

In most cases, the following is the breakdown of roles between a CPA and an attorney:

  • CPA
    • Trained in financial planning, tax regulation and codes
    • Offers straightforward tax advice, answers to tax questions and assistance with filing income taxes
  • Tax attorney
    • Trained in case law, legal writing and research
    • Offers assistance for liability issues, tax liens, complex audits, potential litigation and claims against you or your business

If you are struggling with difficult tax issues, or if there are criminal charges filed against you, the need for an experienced tax attorney becomes even more vital. Additionally, attorneys will often work in tandem with CPAs to effectively resolve tax matters for their clients.

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