What is a CPA and What Does a Certified Public Accountant Do?

what-is-a-cpaA CPA, or certified public accountant, is an accounting professional who has passed the CPA exam and fulfilled all of the state education and work experience requirements to become a licensed CPA set forth by the state board of accountancy in the state in which he or she applied.

There is no national or universal CPA license. All 50 US states and additional five licensing jurisdictions act independently of one another and require different qualifications for licensure. Each state board issues its own license based on the current rules and requirements in that state.

In this way, a CPA license is much like an attorney’s license. Certified public accountants are typically only licensed in one state, but they can become licensed in additional states based on the reciprocity laws.

The CPA designation is the most sought after and used credential in the world of accounting and for good reason. This credential gives you the experience, expertise, knowledge, and opportunity to do many things in your career that a non-certified accountant would not be able to do.

Let’s take a look at some CPA job descriptions and a list of what CPAs are capable of doing.


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. The main two career paths include public accounting and industry accounting.

Let’s look at both.


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. The auditor is recognized as an unbiased third party who reviews and evaluates the financial statements prepared by a company’s management. Based on the audit, the CPA gives an opinion of the financial statements disclosing whether there were an material misstatements found.

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 is 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.

Consulting Services

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.

Litigation Services

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.


What Does a CPA Do in Industry Accounting?

There are several different jobs that CPAs perform outside of the scope of public accounting. Here are a few of them.

Company Management

CPAs make great managers because they understand finance, operations, and how to improve profitability.

Company Executives

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.

Non-Profit Organizations

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.

Government

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.

Education

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.


What Can a CPA Do that an Accountant Can’t Do?

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.

Auditing

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.

Taxation 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 award to enrolled agents and attorneys.


Will You Become a CPA?

There are so many career options and opportunities available for certified public accountants that it’s crazy to not become one. If you are an accountant or are going into accounting, I would strongly recommend becoming certified. You won’t regret it.

 

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Kenneth W. Boyd is a former Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the author of several of the popular "For Dummies" books published by John Wiley & Sons including 'CPA Exam for Dummies' and 'Cost Accounting for Dummies'.

Ken has gained a wealth of business experience through his previous employment as a CPA, Auditor, Tax Preparer and College Professor. Today, Ken continues to use those finely tuned skills to educate students as a professional writer and teacher.