Beyond taxes: Can a CPA do it all?

March 18, 2005

One-stop shopping may be right for you. This article will help you decide.

They provide investment tips. They offer mortgage advice. They help set up retirement plans. They're . . . CPAs.

Yes, you read that right. By taking on a number of services typically reserved for a financial planner, enterprising tax advisers hope to take the place of the multiple-member financial team. With a growing number of CPAs offering investment advice, an accounting firm can become a one-stop shop of sorts.

It's hard to ignore the positives. "Having everything in one place means that every financial decision is made with tax considerations in mind," says Giles K. Almond, a Charlotte, NC, accountant and financial adviser with Matrix Wealth Advisors. "That's a big plus."

Dealing with a single individual or firm isn't only a matter of convenience, Doll says. It also saves clients money by avoiding duplication of effort.

But don't dump your financial planner or insurance agent just yet. One-stop shopping isn't without some risk. "The downside is making sure the CPA is qualified to do financial planning, and not all of them are," Almond says.

Moreover, many accountants enter the financial planning field by selling investments and collecting commissions on them. Working on commission isn't in itself a bad thing, but it can call an adviser's objectivity into question. And since doctors may be investing substantial sums, buying significant amounts of life insurance, or both, the commissions can add up fast.

If you're considering hiring an accountant to handle all of your financial needs, start by looking for a "fee-only" adviser. These planners derive all of their income directly from clients, which helps avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Additionally, make sure the accountant is either a CFP (Certified Financial Planner) or a PFS (Personal Financial Specialist). Professionals who have either designation have gone through extensive testing and are required to take continuing education to keep their credentials.

Doll says doctors may also want to look for someone who's also a Certified Healthcare Business Consultant (CHBC) and works with doctors, dentists, and other healthcare professionals. "Otherwise you may find an adviser who seems qualified, but whose main clients are hightech companies," Doll says. "The specialists are more likely to understand medical practices and offer a variety of services for doctors. Just from a retirement standpoint, for instance, most medical plans are 'top heavy' plans, which means the practice's key employees are getting most of the benefits. Such plans are subject to a whole different set of rules."

But don't get too bogged down with someone's certifications, cautions Gary Schatsky, a New York-based planner and former chairman of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. "You have to look at each person's background and experience." It's also important to ask for at least two references, and to check with the SEC to make sure the accountant hasn't had any regulatory problems.