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Retirement Planning: Enrolled agents are another option for tax help
Retirement Planning

Retirement Planning: Enrolled agents are another option for tax help

Julie Jason color mug

This year, it will be important to start the process of interacting with your tax professional early -- perhaps even now. Why? Last year's tax-act changes caused some surprises, such as underwithholding tax payments.

In that connection, let me share that tax help is not the sole province of CPAs. A reader, Philip Levine, EA, MBA, pointed out to me that last week's column about choosing an accountant did not "mention the benefits and power of hiring an Enrolled Agent (EAs), which I feel does a real disservice to your readers."

Levine points out: "While we may not have the same amount of 'branding' as a CPA ... EAs, unlike un-enrolled preparers, are enrolled to practice before the IRS like CPAs or Attorneys, must pass an extensive federal exam, have ongoing continuing education requirements, are subject to the rules and regulations of the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, but can also practice and represent tax clients from anywhere within the United States unlike other professionals who may be limited by their state licensing."

Levine, who is a board member of the San Francisco South Bay Chapter of the Mission Society of Enrolled Agents, is absolutely correct.

So, in case you haven't come across enrolled agents, here is a little history. Enrolled agents have been around a long time -- since before the income tax was enacted in 1913. Beginning in 1884, they helped settle Civil War property seizure claims, according to the National Association of Enrolled Agents.

After the income tax became effective with the ratification of the 16th Amendment, enrolled agents also handled tax claims, taxpayer representation and the filing of tax returns.

In 1941, Treasury Department Circular 230 was issued to set out the rules that govern the practices of enrolled agents today on a federal level. As reported by NAEA, enrolled agent status is the highest credential awarded by the IRS, secured by passing a three-part Special Enrollment Exam or through previous experience at the IRS.

While IRS requirements for enrolled agents are demanding, membership in NAEA is even more so. NAEA members need 30 hours of continuing education per calendar year. The IRS requires 72 hours within a three-year cycle, with a 16-hour minimum per year, plus two hours on ethics per year.

So, let's assume you'd like to explore using an enrolled agent. How do you find one? is a good starting point, specifically

There, you would first select your location and then browse by specialty, such as tax preparation, gifts, trusts, expatriates, tax audits, partnerships, pensions and U.S. Tax Court representation. NAEA has about 11,000 members and 38 affiliates representing 43 states.

You can also find a complete list of enrolled agents on the IRS website here:

If you want to research with a broader perspective, the IRS publishes "The Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers" at That directory provides the credentials of all attorneys, CPAs, enrolled agents, enrolled retirement plan agents and enrolled actuaries with a valid PTIN (preparer tax identification number), as well as all AFSP Record of Completion holders. It's a great resource.

It's highly likely that you may be using someone now who is neither an enrolled agent nor a CPA. According to the national taxpayer advocate's report recently delivered to Congress, "Overall, most paid preparers are non-credentialed and hence are not required to pass any competency tests or take any educational courses on tax return preparation."

No matter who you choose to prepare your taxes, you should at least research the following information:

What are his or her qualifications and education? Are there any complaints filed against him or her with the Better Business Bureau or a professional organization like the state board of accountancy for CPAs or the state bar association for attorneys? How much is his or her fee, and how does he or she get paid? Can you speak to a current client of his or hers for a reference?

To do some additional reading on enrolled agents, I suggest Treasury Department Circular 230 at Also read "Understanding tax return preparer credentials and qualifications," an IRS resource, at

Email Julie Jason at

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