Consumer Information

What You Should Know About Licensed Accountants and Their Services

(This page reflects changes brought about by Chapter 651 of the Laws of 2008.)


What is public accounting?

Licensed accounting professionals - called certified public accountants (CPAs) or public accountants (PAs) - prepare, evaluate, and attest to the accuracy and completeness of financial statements and related information. Only a licensed CPA or PA may perform the attest function in New York State. CPAs and PAs may also provide tax planning, financial advisory and management advisory services. These particular services may also be provided by unlicensed individuals in NYS. The term "public" in the CPA and PA titles typically refers to third-party reliance on the integrity of the financial information presented by the licensed accountant. However, CPAs and PAs may also be employed in private industry, government, not-for-profit and educational institutions where they apply their professional skills and knowledge to help ensure that the employing entities books, records, management and financial operations are maintained in a manner consistent with applicable standards.

What is the difference between a certified public accountant, a public accountant, and an "accountant"?

Certified Public Accountant and Public Accountant are titles that may only be used by those who are licensed by the Board of Regents to offer public accounting services in NYS. While certified public accountants (CPAs) and public accountants (PAs) are both licensed to perform the same public accounting services, they prepare differently to become licensed.

The title "accountant" by itself is not limited in NYS - anyone, regardless of the level of their training or experience, can call themselves an "accountant," whether they have a license or not.

What credentials does a New York State CPA or PA have?

Applicants for licensure as a CPA in NYS generally have a minimum of five years of college education with the equivalent of a major in accounting; courses include accounting and business subjects as well as liberal arts studies. Applicants may submit 15 years of public accounting experience in place of college preparation.

CPAs have also passed a four-section national licensing examination and had at least one year of accounting experience supervised by a U.S. licensed CPA or NYS PA.

A Public Accountant has a license based solely upon public accounting experience. This is the result of a one-time provision of a 1959 licensing law which allowed those with the required experience to use the PA title and earn a PA license.

While CPAs and PAs have prepared differently for their NYS licenses, they have identical rights to practice public accounting in NYS. In addition, practicing CPAs and PAs must satisfy annual continuing professional education requirements.

What services do CPAs and PAs offer?

CPAs and PAs provide financial services, including the following:

Accounting and auditing services

  • Licensed accountants develop financial books and records and issue reports on financial statements. These statements are used by owners, investors, and others to determine the financial position and operating results of an organization. Third parties, such as banks, use financial statements audited, reviewed or compiled by licensed CPAs or PAs who are independent of the organization whose records are being evaluated.

Tax services

  • Licensed accountants prepare tax returns, advise on tax issues and planning, and may represent clients before taxing authorities such as the Internal Revenue Service. Attorneys and individuals who are registered with the IRS as "enrolled agents" may also represent clients before the IRS.

Management advisory services

  • Licensed accountants analyze, evaluate, design, and implement the systems that affect the planning, organizing, and controlling of business activities. These services also include assisting clients on business transactions (e.g., mergers and acquisitions) and offering expert testimony in legal proceedings. Some licensed accountants provide personal financial planning services as well.

Financial advisory services

  • Licensed accountants provide a range of financial analysis and financial planning services to individuals and business entities. This may include investment advice and management, securities analysis and advice, pension management and estate planning services.

How do I locate a CPA or PA?

Seek a recommendation from a satisfied colleague or relative. You may also check under "Accountants - Certified Public" or "Accountants - Public" in the yellow pages of your phone book. CPAs and PAs practice as individuals or as owners or employees of accounting firms. Professional associations may also provide the names of their members who offer services in your area.

The State Board for Public Accountancy cannot refer you to a practitioner or CPA or PA firm.

What questions should individuals with disabilities ask about accessing services?

Ask such questions as whether the service location is physically accessible (curb cuts, ramps, restrooms, etc.) as well as whether there is a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD) and parking for people with disabilities.

What information should I be expected to share with and get from my CPA or PA?

When conducting business with your CPA or PA, you should:

  • Answer fully all questions the CPA/PA has about your financial data.
  • Ask questions about terminology and requirements you don't understand.

In turn, your CPA/PA should:

  • Explain the basis for all assumptions made in developing financial accounts (for example, deductions taken on an income tax return).
  • Identify reasonable alternatives and options.
  • Provide you with a written contract ("engagement letter") describing the services to be provided, expected timing, the basis for the fees to be charged, and the total estimated charges.

What records does my CPA/PA maintain? Can anyone else get them?

When possible, keep a copy of all records you provide to your CPA or PA (financial statements, tax records, etc.). A licensed accountant may not withhold records you provided or have paid for.

All information received by the licensed accountant in the course of providing services to you is confidential unless you authorize its release in writing. However, client records in the possession of a CPA/PA may be subpoenaed for legal proceedings.

Verifying a New York State License

New York State CPAs and PAs must display a current NYS registration certificate; this certificate lists the professional's name, address, and the end of the registration period. Licensed accountants must reregister every three years to practice in NYS. Some professionals also display their original NYS license, diploma, licenses from other states, and membership certificates. You may verify an individual's license and registration on this site.

Last Updated: October 9, 2009