Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.
There are many tax pros out there ready to help with an annual return, tax planning and more. But it can be hard to know whom to trust with your most sensitive information.
Certified public accountants (CPAs) are a common type of credentialed accounting professional whom you might encounter in your search for tax prep help. Here’s more on what a CPA does and how to find one in your area.
How can a CPA help you with taxes?
A CPA who prepares and files income taxes typically possesses a deep knowledge and understanding of tax law and should be aware of any critical tax changes affecting your situation and how to navigate them.
They’ll work with you to file your federal and state tax returns, make sure you are taking advantage of any tax credits and deductions you’re eligible for, and sign off on your return once complete. Some CPAs also provide tax-planning services to help you optimize your finances and take advantage of tax strategies year-round.
CPAs are granted what the IRS calls “unlimited representation rights.” This means they can work with taxpayers on any tax issue and represent them in front of the agency in cases of audits, appeals, or payment and collection issues. Not all tax preparers have this privilege.
How to find a CPA near you
1. Narrow your search
Typing “CPA near me” into Google can take all of two seconds, but contending with the quality of information you see can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips to narrow down your search.
Check the IRS directory: The IRS maintains a robust database that taxpayers can use to find tax preparers near them, including CPAs. You can filter by location, last name and what kind of pro you want.
Review online directories: Professional tax and accounting associations are great starting points for CPA research. Some organizations may not have publicly available directories, requiring more email and outreach work on your part. Still, it could be worth the effort, especially if you want to find a pro whose specific experiences, background and knowledge meet your needs.
Some notable tax and accounting associations include:
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA).
National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP).
National Society of Black Certified Public Accountants (NSBCPA).
National Society of Enrolled Agents (NAEA).
The International Society of Filipinos in Finance and Accounting (ISFFA).
Many state-run CPA societies also have directories. The AICPA compiled a list for easy browsing.
Get referrals: It can also be beneficial to ask around when it comes to looking for a new CPA. Colleagues or friends might be able to provide you with guidance and firsthand reviews of people they’ve worked with.
Ask your financial institution for a recommendation: Don’t forget to leverage any existing financial networks you have when searching for a CPA. Your bank, financial advisor or even your workplace might have resources in place to assist you in your search.
2. Verify their credentials
Digging into someone’s records might seem like extra work, but doing so can help you uncover potential red flags, such as a lapsed license or any disciplinary actions taken against them. It can also protect you from working with what the IRS calls “ghost preparers” — unlicensed scammers who claim to be CPAs.
Here are a few ways to ensure your CPA’s info is on the up and up.
Look for a PTIN: At the very minimum, you’ll want to ensure anyone touching your 1040 has a preparer tax identification number (PTIN). Per IRS law, people who prepare taxes in exchange for money are required to have this number. You can verify someone’s PTIN using the IRS’ tax preparer directory.
Review their standing and license: Having a PTIN is one matter. You’ll also want to check that the CPA has a clean record and is licensed to practice in your state. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy’s CPA Verify tool is just one resource to help you get a quick overview of a CPA’s licensing and history. Your state’s accountancy board can also provide more details about a pro’s credentials.
Ask if they’re insured: Mistakes happen. Professional liability insurance is a type of insurance that can help protect both the CPA and the customer if a dispute arises. Asking if your pro, or the agency or firm they work for, carries this type of insurance could also add some peace of mind to your experience.
3. Make sure they’re a good fit
You wouldn’t want to work with anyone without having asked them at least a few basic questions about their process and how they’ll work with you. After all, you want to make sure you’re on the same page with the person who is going to handle your personal financial documents. Asking a few questions can also help you to gauge if the CPA is the right person for the job.
Do you specialize in a specific area of taxation?
How much experience do you have?
How will we communicate?
How will you let me know when my return is ready?
Can I come to you with tax questions outside of tax season?
Can you provide other types of tax advice or tax planning?
How do I contact you if I have any questions?
How will you transmit my refund?
4. Review their fees
How much does a CPA cost? Well, that depends, but you can generally expect to pay more when working with a CPA compared with a general tax preparer. Some popular fee structures include:
A flat fee that can be scaled up or down depending on the complexity of the return.
A set fee for each form that is required to complete your return.
Others may do away with flat fees altogether and charge an hourly rate.
Get ready for simple tax filing with a $50 flat fee for every scenario
Don’t miss out during the 2024 tax season. Register for a NerdWallet account to gain access to a tax product powered by Column Tax for a flat rate of $50 in 2024, credit score tracking, personalized recommendations, timely alerts, and more.
for a NerdWallet account
For CPAs who charge according to form type, a 2022 survey by Drake Software found that the average charge for a basic, nonitemized 1040 was $265. Itemized returns were slightly more expensive, with an average fee of $319, and returns featuring Schedule C for business income averaged $442. Pricing can also depend on where in the country you’re located and how busy your CPA is. Don’t forget to ask about state return fees as well.
Regardless of how your CPA structures their payments, they should never charge you based on the size of your refund. If a tax pro claims their fee will depend on how much you get back from the IRS, that’s a surefire sign that you might not be working with someone trustworthy.
5. Do a final check
Finally, you’ll want to ask the following questions as a final form of assurance and insurance.
Q: Will you sign my return?
A: All tax preparers, including CPAs, should always sign a return and include their PTIN.
Q: Can you represent me in an audit?
A: CPAs have unlimited representation rights, so they can go to the IRS on your behalf to represent you for things such as audits or other tax issues.
Q: Will you e-file?
A: They should. The IRS says that anyone preparing more than 11 tax returns needs to e-file. It’s also faster and allows the IRS to process your return (and refund) more efficiently. If a CPA answers “no” to this question, they may not have as many customers as they claim.
Other types of tax preparers
If someone holds a CPA title, it’s a pretty good sign they’ve got some experience, but CPAs aren’t the only pros who can help you get your taxes done. CPAs tend to be pricier than other types of tax pros because of their level of experience and education, but depending on your needs, another type of tax pro can also do the job.
So whom can you trust? The IRS grants two other types of pros unlimited practice and representation rights:
Enrolled agents: An enrolled agent (EA) is an individual who has passed a rigorous three-part IRS exam called the Special Enrollment Exam that tests for competency in individual tax and business preparation, as well as representation, practices and procedures related to tax filing. EAs must also complete 72 hours of coursework from an IRS-sanctioned vendor every three years to maintain their status. A former IRS employee can also be given an EA credential.
Tax attorneys: A tax lawyer is a licensed law professional who has passed the bar exam and practices in taxation. Tax attorneys might also hold CPAs or another accounting degree.
There are also other tax preparers who may not hold these particular credentials but who have other types of educational training.
For example, individuals who participate in the IRS’ Annual Filing Season Program are required to complete 18 hours of continuing education per year, including hours on ethics and a refresher course. Note, however, that they are only granted limited representation rights. This means that unlike CPAs, attorneys and EAs, they can’t represent you in all cases and won’t be able to work on behalf of clients when it comes to appeals or collections.
Do you need a CPA for your taxes?
There’s no golden rule about when (or if it's necessary) to graduate from a do-it-yourself approach to working with a CPA. Some people may never need anything more than quality tax-prep software or another type of tax preparer to complete their annual returns. This could be especially true if your tax situation is pretty simple or you feel reasonably confident about your taxes.
There are also free options: People who earn less than a certain amount each year may qualify for IRS Free File or another type of free service.
Calling in a CPA could make sense if you have complicated questions or need extra help. Certain life events — such as marriage, divorce, death, retirement, a home purchase or working with new types of investments — can make filing taxes more complex.
Working with a pro could be the way to go if you need help navigating those events. Many small-business owners often choose to work with CPAs because of the nuance required to fill out their returns.
Some people also prefer to work with CPAs simply for the ability to ask questions face to face. The bottom line? It ultimately comes down to your preference and comfort in navigating the tax world.