CPA Overview: Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is the title of qualified accountants in numerous countries in the English-speaking world. In the United States, the CPA is a license to provide accounting services directly to the public. It is awarded by each of the 50 states for practice in that state. Additionally, almost every state (49 out of 50) has passed mobility laws in order to allow practice in their state by CPAs from other states. Although state licensing requirements vary, the minimum standard requirements include the passing of the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, 150 semester units of college education, and one year of accounting related experience.
Continuing professional education (CPE) is also required to maintain licensure. Individuals who have been awarded the CPA but have lapsed in the fulfillment of the required CPE or have requested to be converted to inactive status are in many states permitted to use the designation “CPA Inactive” or an equivalent phrase. In most U.S. states, only CPAs are legally able to provide to the public attestation (including auditing) opinions on financial statements. Many CPAs are members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and their state CPA society.
State laws vary widely regarding whether a non-CPA is even allowed to use the title accountant. To illustrate, Texas prohibits the use of the designations “accountant” and “auditor” by a person not certified as a Texas CPA, unless that person is a CPA in another state, is a non-resident of Texas, and otherwise meets the requirements for practice in Texas by out-of-state CPA firms and practitioners.
CPA Overview: Services provided
The primary functions performed by CPAs relate to assurance services. In assurance services, also known as financial audit services, CPAs attest to the reasonableness of disclosures, the freedom from material misstatement, and the adherence to the applicable generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) in financial statements. CPAs can also be employed by corporations—termed “the private sector”—in finance functions such as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or finance manager, or as CEOs subject to their full business knowledge and practice. These CPAs do not provide services directly to the public.
Although some CPA firms serve as business consultants, the consulting role has been under scrutiny following the Enron scandal where Arthur Andersen simultaneously provided audit and consulting services which affected their ability to maintain independence in their audit duties. This incident resulted in many accounting firms divesting in their consulting divisions, but this trend has since reversed. In audit engagements, CPAs are (and have always been) required by professional standards and Federal and State laws to maintain independence (both in fact and in appearance) from the entity for which they are conducting an attestation (audit and review) engagement. However, most individual CPAs who work as consultants do not also work as auditors.
CPAs also have a niche within the income tax return preparation industry. Many small to mid-sized firms have both a tax and an auditing department. Along with attorneys and enrolled agents, CPAs may represent taxpayers in matters before the Internal Revenue Service.
Whether providing services directly to the public or employed by corporations or associations, CPAs can operate in virtually any area of finance including:
- Assurance and attestation services
- Corporate finance (merger and acquisition, initial public offerings, share and debt issuings)
- Corporate governance
- Estate planning
- Financial accounting
- Governmental accounting
- Financial analysis
- Financial planning
- Forensic accounting (preventing, detecting, and investigating financial frauds)
- Income tax
- Information technology, especially as applied to accounting and auditing
- Management consulting and performance management
- Tax preparation and planning
- Venture Capital
- Financial reporting
- Regulatory reporting
In order to become a CPA in the United States, the candidate must sit for and pass the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination (Uniform CPA Exam), which is set by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and administered by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). The CPA designation was first established in law in New York State on April 17, 1896
Eligibility to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam is determined by individual state boards of accountancy. Many states have adopted what is known as the “150 hour rule” (150 college semester units or the equivalent), which usually requires an additional year of education past a regular 4 year college degree, or a master’s degree. (As such, universities commonly offer combined 5-year bachelor’s/master’s degree programs, allowing a student to earn both degrees while receiving the 150 hours needed for exam eligibility.)
The Uniform CPA Exam tests general principles of state law such as the laws of contracts and agency (questions not tailored to the variances of any particular state) and some federal laws as well.
TAKE THE EXAMINATION
Report to the Test Center
Come prepared! Before your test date, read the Candidate Bulletin for information about acceptable forms of identification and the rules in effect at test centers with respect to the check-in process, the launch of the examination, and required candidate behavior. On the day of your appointment, be sure to bring your NTS and the necessary acceptable personal identification documents to the test center. Plan to arrive at the test center at least 30 minutes early. Also, remember that your testing appointment is 30 minutes longer than the time allowed for the examination so that you may complete the sign-in process and survey without infringing on your examination time.
Take the Examination
Conform to all test center requirements, follow instructions, plan your examination time, and do a great job when you answer examination questions. Report any equipment/functionality issues to the test center staff without delay. (Report any comments about test questions or examination software after the examination. Test center staff cannot help with such issues.)
Do you have questions about the examination you just took, comments about your testing experience, or any issues to report?
Refer to the Confirmation of Attendance that you received at the end of the examination session. This document contains contact information and instructions on where to turn if you have questions or have anything to report.
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