CFP vs. CPA: What’s the Difference and Who Should You Hire?

Certified financial planners and certified public accountants have different but complementary areas of expertise. You might want to work with an adviser who’s both a CFP and a CPA.

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There are more than 200 designations and certifications available to financial professionals, comprising an alphabet soup of distinctions that confuse consumers and fellow professionals alike. If you are searching for a financial planner, know that quality is more important than quantity. Distinguishing between various distinctions, such as CFP® vs. CPA, is key to making sure you receive the best advice.

Two of the most recognizable financial credentials are the CPA license and CFP® certification. CPAs and CFP® professionals have different but complementary areas of expertise, and some professionals hold both credentials. When considering who to hire, it’s important to understand their roles individually and to know when it makes sense to work with an adviser who has both credentials.

The Certified Public Account’s Role

To earn the CPA license, accountants must complete at least 150 hours of education, pass a rigorous four-part exam and meet experience requirements, according to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) (opens in new tab). In a corporate setting, CPAs can offer financial statement audits and other attestation services to help inform investors about the financial health of organizations. Additionally, they often provide tax, financial reporting and advisory services to corporations, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, governments and individuals.

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A CPA can be helpful in the realm of personal finance as well. A CPA is useful for individuals in tax preparation and for discussing an individual’s tax situation with the IRS. CPAs can also be useful to business owners for bookkeeping and tax matters associated with an individual’s business. Some CPAs even have additional training that may help with business valuation, or detecting fraud, which can be helpful to business owners.

CPAs complete rigorous training and are helpful in very specific circumstances. But most accountants do not feel comfortable advising on the various complexities inherent in personal finance or myriad other important financial decisions that may require advice from a specialized expert. To truly achieve your short- and long-term financial goals, you will likely benefit from working with a professional who is trained to take a more holistic and forward-looking approach to your personal finances.

The Certified Financial Planner’s Role

In short, a financial planner is an individual who advises clients on their personal finances. The CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification is the standard of excellence in financial planning.

Much like the CPA license, the CFP® certification requires completing coursework, fulfilling relevant experience requirements, agreeing to adhere to a set of ethical mandates and passing the CFP® exam, which consists of two three-hour sessions over one day. The requirements for CFP® certification are just as rigorous as for the CPA license, and the education requirements include similar foundational topics, such as tax regulations and risk management.

The comprehensive education for CFP® professionals, however, expands into the general principles of financial planning and other personal finance topics such as investments and retirement planning

In recognition of the overlap between CPAs and CFP® professionals, the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) (opens in new tab) provides an accelerated path for professionals with select credentials, including the CPA license, who are working toward CFP® certification.

While CPAs can assist with examining past financial information to reduce taxable liability retrospectively, financial planners consider a wide range of opportunities to grow and protect your wealth through careful planning. CFP® professionals focus heavily on strategic financial management and maintain a strong interest in budgeting, savings, insurance and estate planning. CFP® professionals closely review your current financial standing and, based on your financial goals, develop an investment and financial plan to help you accumulate wealth.

Although both CFP® professionals and CPAs can help clients maximize their incomes by reducing taxable liability, financial planners are also looking ahead to find new ways to grow their clients’ net wealth.

CFP® professionals are continuously looking for new ways to strengthen and deepen client relations at different touchpoints throughout the year. CFP® professionals understand that discussing your financial future can be emotional and stressful. That is why CFP Board recently added a new section to its exam topics, the Psychology of Financial Planning (opens in new tab), to teach the emotional and interpersonal aspects of financial planning. This topic prepares CFP® professionals — and CPAs who complete the accelerated path program — to counsel clients who are experiencing monetary conflict or financial stress, helping them to move forward holistically.

Your Financial Goals

If you are looking for a professional to help you evaluate your past financial statements and solve some portion of your tax situation, a CPA may be helpful (opens in new tab), especially if you have complicated income streams.

However, if you’re looking to begin a relationship with someone who can provide ongoing, forward-looking advice as well as financial peace of mind, a CFP® professional (opens in new tab) could be a better fit. Whether you’re looking to save for retirement, establish an estate plan or make strategic investments, a CFP® professional will typically be better equipped to evaluate and navigate the best route for you.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

Kevin R. Keller, CAE
Chief Executive Officer, Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board)

Kevin R. Keller, CAE, is CEO of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. CFP Board sets standards for financial planning and administers the prestigious CFP® certification – one of the most respected certifications in financial services and one of the few accredited financial services designations. He leads CFP Board to benefit the public by granting CFP® certification and upholding it as the standard of excellence for competent and ethical personal financial planning.