Choosing an Accountant Who’s Right for You

BY STEVE DINNEN

This might help when you interview a new or replacement accountant: Bring along a copy of your current tax return.

“That’s a good road map to where you’ve been” money- and business-wise, says Troy Albertson, a CPA at Lincicum & Albertson LLC in Ankeny. Plus, it will give the accountant an idea of how much it will cost to prepare your taxes.

Choosing an accountant should not be not an overly complicated task, but there are some guidelines you can follow. For starters, look for experience. How many years have they been doing taxes or performing tax services? Practice makes perfect in this world, so if you have a fresh young graduate (the Department of Accounting at the University of Northern Iowa has a great reputation, by the way) preparing your taxes, make sure that someone in the firm with seniority is reviewing their work.

Expertise is important as well. Some accountants like to work on small businesses, or with construction firms, or on farm returns. Skills in these areas are typically learned on-the-job over time. An advanced degree, if you will, is the CPA designation. John Stuber, a CPA with Martens & Co. in West Des Moines, says CPAs not only have to pass lengthy licensing exams, but they must attend continuing education annually to keep abreast of developments in the field. Each state licenses CPAs, a task left to the Iowa Accountancy Examining Board (which also records any disciplinary actions at this website.

Do you want just a tax preparer, or someone who can handle your ongoing personal and/or business accounting needs as well? If you’re choosing the latter, will you further want them to be able to provide business consulting services, such as working tax strategies, or ways to enhance the performance of your business? Increasingly, accountants are beefing up their business services. 

Lincicum & Albertson, for instance, provides payroll services and consulting for small businesses. Martens will work on business startup and succession planning, as well as personal estate planning. RSM (a global firm that grew out of a one-man shop set up in Cedar Rapids in 1926 by Ira McGladrey) can do your taxes while advising on corporate restructurings, sell-side due diligence, outsourcing plans and other business and tax matters.

There are costs here, of course. It is difficult to shop for an accountant based solely on a cost basis, as they tend to charge by varied standards (flat fee, hourly basis, set fee for each schedule, etc.) and they may have different approaches to a particular situation. That’s where the prior year return will come in handy; Albertson says it also gives him an idea of where the client might be heading in the future.

Whatever the level of sophistication you need, odds are you’ll choose a tax and accounting firm based upon the word of a friend or relative. The vast majority of an accountant’s customers are recruited by way of referrals. Word of mouth still works fine in this field. And so does good work.

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