Q&A: CPA vs. financial planner

Dear Liz: I read your recent response to the lottery winner. You made some really good comments and suggestions. However, you suggested that the person seek out a trustworthy, fee-only financial planner.

I am a certified public accountant. As you know, CPAs have historically been one of if not the most trusted advisors. I do get defensive when I read articles such as yours because never do people suggest that a CPA be consulted in situations such as these. In my opinion, financial planners do not have the overall breadth of experience and knowledge of the income tax and estate tax ramifications of decisions that need to be made.

Answer: If you’re holding yourself out as an expert in financial planning, you’d better be one.

There’s no question that CPAs are tax experts. But how knowledgeable are you about investments? Insurance, including life, health, disability and long-term care? Retirement savings and income planning? Education planning and funding? Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? Employee benefits, retirement plan selection and business succession planning?

Those are only a few of the dozens of topics that a certified financial planner is required to know. CFPs are expected to look at clients’ entire financial picture and understand how the pieces should best work together. They are supposed to know that taxes may be a factor in many financial planning decisions, but taxes shouldn’t be the only or even the driving factor in any of them.

CFPs may not be able to match your breadth or depth of knowledge in your area, but that’s why they would refer clients to certified public accountants for detailed help with those issues. They also would know when to get estate-planning attorneys involved, and insurance agents and so on.

Some CPAs do become comprehensive financial planners by earning the personal financial specialist or PFS credential, which is similar to the CFP. The additional training and experience helps them understand how taxes fit into their clients’ larger financial picture. It also helps them know what they don’t know, so they know when to consult more knowledgeable experts for help.

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Comments

  1. Suzanne Rague says

    Commenting on the CPA who took offense at your recommending a fee-only financial planner to give financial planning advice to a lottery winner. I am a Registered Investment Adviser — i.e. someone who is registered to provide fee-only financial advice. I would remind this CPA that anyone who gives investment advice professionally must to be licensed to do so. Both accountants and investment advisers are regulated with an eye to protecting the client. The lottery winner should probably receive advice from both an RIA and a CPA.

    • Liz Weston says

      Nope. Again, the reader needs a comprehensive financial planner. With complex financial situations and sudden wealth, people need a lot more than just advice about investing or taxes.