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Posts Tagged ‘CPA’

Considerations For CPAs Dealing With Unpaid Fees

Posted on: April 15th, 2020

By: Nancy Reimer, Nicole Graham, Elizabeth Lowery, Zinnia Khan, and Caroline Wu

Many Certified Public Accountants and accounting firms will likely be increasingly confronted with collecting fees as the COVID-19 health crisis continues.  In dealing with unpaid fees, a CPA must pay close attention to their professional duties and obligations with respect to the release of client records, tax returns and even their own workpapers. 

In every instance, a CPA must adhere not only to the American Institute of CPAs’ (“AICPA”) Code of Professional Conduct and guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), but also to state-specific statutes and regulations.  There are often key differences between the AICPA Code, IRS guidance and state law.  For example, the release of client records, including a tax return or audit report, is left to a CPA’s discretion under the AICPA Code – as it states that a CPA should provide certain records upon a client’s request.  In contrast, IRS Circular 230, § 10.28 provides a CPA must, at the request of a client, promptly return the client’s records.   

Accordingly, it is best to start with the requirements of the AICPA Code of Professional conduct and IRS Circular 230 (for tax returns) and then proceed to examine the obligations set forth under the laws of the state in which the CPA is licensed. 

AICPA Code section 1.400.200.07 governs a client’s request for records or the CPA’s work product in the CPA’s custody or control and which have not previously been provided to the client.  Under section 1.400.200.07, the CPA should respond by providing the prepared records and work product, except that such records may be withheld if fees are due to the CPA for that specific work product.  This language, however, is subject to the rules and regulations of other authorities, including state laws and regulations. 

Under IRS Circular 230, § 10.28, a CPA must, at the request of a client, promptly return any and all records of the client that are necessary for the client to comply with his or her Federal tax obligations.  The existence of a dispute over fees generally does not relieve the CPA of this responsibility.  IRS Circular 230 also defers to requirements under state law.  If the applicable state law permits the retention of a client’s records in the case of a fee dispute or unpaid fees, the CPA need only return those records that must be attached to the taxpayer’s return. 

The laws and regulations concerning the return of client records and other documents for various states are set forth below.  Not coincidentally, the states below are those where Freeman, Mathis & Gary, LLP maintains one or more offices.

California  

Regardless of whether there are unpaid fees, California CPAs are required to return all client’s records. California Board of Accountancy Regulations Article 9 § 68 specifically states that: “Unpaid fees do not constitute justification for retention of client records.  Although, in general the accountant’s working papers are the property of the licensee [CPA]…”  

California’s Business and Professions Code § 5037 goes on to say that the CPA’s “working papers”, “except the reports submitted by the [CPA] to the client…shall remain the property of the [CPA] in the absence of an express agreement.”  But it is unclear what “reports submitted by the [CPA] to the client” means, and whether it includes a CPA’s work product such as prepared returns.  

California Board of Accountancy Regulations Article 9 § 68.1 defines “working papers” as the “[CPA’s] records of the procedures applied, the tests performed, the information obtained and the pertinent conclusions reached in an audit, review, compilation, tax, special report or other engagement” and “include, but are not limited to, audit of other programs, analyses, memoranda, letters of confirmation and representations, abstracts of company documents and schedules or commentaries prepared or obtained by the [CPA].” Thus, the definition of “working papers” arguably includes all of a CPA’s work product.  This makes sense since, in the case of unpaid fees, there is no specific return requirement for any documents other than a client’s own records.

Connecticut                                                        

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 20-281k(b) provides, a CPA shall return a client’s original records to his client or former client upon the client’s request and reasonable notice.  The CPA may make and retain copies of such documents of the client when such documents form the basis for work done by him.  Unlike the AICPA Code, this language imposes a mandatory duty on CPAs to return client records upon request

Florida

Florida’s provides that a CPA must return all of the client’s own records upon request, and can charge reasonable fees for costs incurred in doing so.  Section (c) of the same rule appears to build in the requirement of payment by the client before any work product is released, as it defers to the terms of the engagement between the CPA and client.  Florida’s Regulation of Professions and Occupations, Title XXXII Chapter 473.318 addresses the ownership of working papers, and is almost word for word identical to that of California’s BPC § 5037 quoted above which states that working papers remain the property of the CPA. 

Georgia

In Georgia, section 20-12-.12. of the Rules of the State Board of Accountancy Public Accountancy Act of 2014, states:

A licensee[CPA] shall furnish to his or her client or former client, upon request made within a reasonable time:

(a) Any accounting or other records belonging to, or obtained from or on behalf of, the client which the [CPA] removed from the client’s premises or received for the client’s account, but the [CPA] may make and retain copies of such documents when they form the basis for work done by him or her; and

(b) A copy of the [CPA’s] working papers, to the extent that such working papers include records which would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s books and records and are not otherwise available to the client.

The Georgia State Board of Accountancy issued a Statement of Policy (Policy No. 5) relating to section 20-12-.12. of the rules.  The Statement of Policy explains:

During the course of a professional engagement, a [CPA] may possess certain records of a client, or may have developed certain records without which the Client Records would be incomplete. Retention of Client Records after the client has made a request for them is a violation of Rule 20-12-.12. The [CPA] does not have a lien on these records, and they must be returned regardless of the fact that the fee of the [CPA] may remain unpaid. For purpose of this Rule, the term “Client Records” refers to those journals, ledgers, bank statements and cancelled checks, copies of invoices and similar documentation of the transactions that are reflected in financial statements. It is anticipated that the client will have retained copies of financial statements, income tax returns, and similar documents. A [CPA] is not required to convert records that are not in electronic format to electronic format. However, if the client requests records in a specific format and the [CPA] was engaged to prepare the records in that format, the client’s request should be honored. If a [CPA] is engaged to perform certain work for a client and the engagement is terminated prior to the completion of such work, the [CPA] is required to return or furnish copies of only those records originally given to the [CPA] by the client. Any working papers developed by the [CPA] incident to the performance of the engagement which do not result in changes to the Client Records or are not in themselves part of the records ordinarily maintained by such client, are considered to be solely “accountant’s working papers” and are not the property of the client.  Once the [CPA] has returned the Client Records or furnished the client with copies of such records and/or necessary supporting data, the [CPA] has discharged the obligation in this regard and need not comply with any subsequent requests to again furnish such records. If the [CPA] has retained copies of Client Records already in possession of the client, the [CPA] is not required to return such copies to the client.

Kentucky               

Kentucky Revised Statutes Chapter 325.420(a) requires the licensee[CPA] to return any of the client’s own records upon request. Kentucky Revised Statutes Chapter 325.420(b) then builds in the requirement for payment by the client for services rendered, before the [CPA] is required to provide their work product, which specifically includes tax returns.

Maine

Maine compels the return of client records upon the client’s request.  Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 32, § 12280 states a CPA shall furnish to his client or former client upon request and reasonable notice:

  1. A copy of the CPA’s working papers, to the extent that the working papers include records that would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s records and are not otherwise available to the client; and
  2. Any accounting or other records belonging to, or obtained from or on behalf of, the client that the CPA removed from the client’s premises or received for the client’s account. The CPA may make and retain copies of those documents of the client when they form the basis for work done by him.

Massachusetts

Under 252 C.M.R. 3.03(3), a CPA shall furnish to a client or former client, upon request made within a reasonable time after original issuance of the document in question, if not previously furnished:

  • A copy of the tax return of the client;
  • A copy of any report or other document issued by the CPA to or for such client;
  • Any accounting or other records belonging to, or obtained from or on behalf of the client (but the CPA may make and retain copies of such documents of the client when they form the basis for work done by the CPA); and
  • A copy of the CPA’s workpapers, to the extent that such workpapers include records that would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s books and records and are not otherwise available to the client.

New Hampshire

Pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 309-B:19 (II), a CPA shall furnish to the client or former client, upon request and reasonable notice:

  • A copy of the CPA’s working papers, to the extent that such working papers include records that would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s records and are not otherwise available to the client; and
  • Any accounting or other records belonging to, or obtained from or on behalf of, the client that the CPA removed from the client’s premises or received for the client’s account. The CPA may make and retain copies of such documents of the client when they form the basis for work done by the CPA.
  • A copy of computer-prepared client data diskettes containing client ledger data, spread sheet data, client documents and any other such data of the client or former client that would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s records and not otherwise be available to the client.

New Jersey

N.J.A.C. 13:29-3.16 provides:

(a)  A licensee[CPA] or the [CPA’s] firm shall furnish to the [CPA’s] client or former client, upon request made within a reasonable time after original issuance of the document in question:

1.  A copy of a tax return of the client;

2.  A copy of any report, or other document, issued by the [CPA] to or for such client;

3.  Any accounting or other records belonging to, or obtained from or on behalf of, the client which the [CPA] removed from the client’s premises or received for the client’s account, but the [CPA] or the [CPA’s] firm may make and retain copies of such documents when they form the basis for work done by the [CPA]; and

4.  [CPA]-prepared client records that would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s books and records, are contained in the [CPA]’s or his or her firm’s working papers, and are not otherwise available to the client. Copies of such records shall be produced to the client in the same manner, media, and format as the record was created by the [CPA].

(b)  A [CPA] or the [CPA’s] firm shall not withhold client records for the non-payment of fees for services performed.

Pennsylvania 

A CPA shall furnish to its client or former client upon request made within a reasonable time after original issuance of the document in question:

(1) A copy of a tax return of the client.

(2) A copy of any report or other document issued by the [CPA] to or for such client and not formally withdrawn or disavowed by the [CPA] prior to the request.

(3) A copy of the [CPAs] working papers to the extent that such working papers include records that would ordinarily constitute part of the client’s records and are not otherwise available to the client. However, a [CPA] may require that fees due the [CPA] with respect to completed engagements be paid before such information is provided.

(4) Any accounting or other records belonging to, or obtained from or on behalf of, the client that the [CPA] removed from the client’s premises or received for the client’s account. The[CPA]  may make and retain copies of such documents of the client whenever those documents form the basis for work done by him.

(5) If a [CPA] can document compliance with the foregoing requirements, he need not comply with subsequent requests to again provide such information.

63 P.S. s. 9.11(b).

Rhode Island

Rhode Island law does not expressly address the return of client records, though R.I. Gen. Laws Section 5-3.1-22 governs the ownership of such records.  In Rhode Island, all statements, records, schedules, working papers, memoranda, and any other data, including, but not limited to, a data bank, that are retained by a CPA or accounting firm incident to or in the course of professional services rendered to clients are the property of that CPA or accounting firm in the absence of an express agreement to the contrary.

CPAs licensed in Rhode Island must therefore comply with the requirements prescribed by the AICPA code and IRS Circular 230, § 10.28 when examining their obligations to return client records.

Vermont 

Under Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 26, § 81(c), original copies of client documents in the possession of the CPA are the property of the client and must be returned to the client upon request.  Subsection (a) provides, however, statements, records, schedules, working papers and memoranda made by a CPA are the property of the CPA.

Additional Information:

The FMG Coronavirus Task Team will be conducting a series of webinars on Coronavirus issues on a regular basis. Topics include COVID-19’s impact on finances and loans, the FFCRA, the CARES Act and more. Click here to view upcoming webinars.

FMG has formed a Coronavirus Task Force to provide up-to-the-minute information, strategic advice, and practical solutions for our clients.  Our group is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys who can address the multitude of legal issues arising out of the coronavirus pandemic, including issues related to Healthcare, Product Liability, Tort Liability, Data Privacy, and Cyber and Local Governments.  For more information about the Task Force, click here.

You can also contact your FMG relationship partner or email the team with any questions at [email protected].

**DISCLAIMER:  The attorneys at Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP (“FMG”) have been working hard to produce educational content to address issues arising from the concern over COVID-19.  The webinars and our written material have produced many questions. Some we have been able to answer, but many we cannot without a specific legal engagement.  We can only give legal advice to clients.  Please be aware that your attendance at one of our webinars or receipt of our written material does not establish an attorney-client relationship between you and FMG.  An attorney-client relationship will not exist unless and until an FMG partner expressly and explicitly states IN WRITING that FMG will undertake an attorney-client relationship with you, after ascertaining that the firm does not have any legal conflicts of interest.  As a result, you should not transmit any personal or confidential information to FMG unless we have entered into a formal written agreement with you.  We will continue to produce education content for the public, but we must point out that none of our webinars, articles, blog posts, or other similar material constitutes legal advice, does not create an attorney client relationship and you cannot rely on it as such.  We hope you will continue to take advantage of the conferences and materials that may pertain to your work or interests.**

Facing Increased Cyber Threats Against Legal and Accounting Professionals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted on: March 24th, 2020

By: Renata Hoddinott

Millions around the world have had their daily routines disrupted and a wide variety of companies are participating in the largest “work from home” mobilization in history. While the ability for professionals to work remotely is key to business continuity in the midst of this pandemic, in doing so, firms and professionals have open their networks to unprecedented exposure.

Bad actors are capitalizing on the intense focus on COVID-19 panic and fear and security professionals have already noted an increase in malicious schemes. Those include phishing emails framed as alerts regarding the coronavirus outbreak containing attachments purportedly with information about COVID-19 and how to protect against the virus. When people are already stressed, fearful, and desperate for the most up-to-date information to protect themselves and loved ones, there is a significant risk to the security of any network.

Another prevalent threat for professionals, and particularly for CPAs, is in the realm of wire transfer requests. These types of scams are on the rise and can be very convincing, duping even the most cyber-savvy of professionals. Bad actors often begin well in advance of an attack by laying in wait and collecting information over an extended period. When the opportunity presents itself, such as now, these criminals use that information to launch convincing wire transfer requests. They can be framed as emails from “clients” requesting emergency funding and providing fraudulent wire instructions. CPAs often find themselves on the front lines against these malicious schemes and need to remain diligent and exercise extreme caution when responding to any requests. With professionals working remotely it can be more difficult to ensure a request is valid, but it is vital for requests to be double and triple checked and validated directly by phone or video to ensure accuracy before a single dollar is transferred.

Now is the time for all professionals to be vigilant about the cyber dangers. An unprecedented number of professionals are accessing company networks remotely and continuing to service clients including handling sensitive and confidential client data. In an office environment, when a threat is detected, IT can immediately quarantine and disconnect the compromised device and conduct an investigation of the company network. Now, however, employees may be connecting to firms’ servers from their own perhaps less secure networks and IT professionals are not on-site in those locations to troubleshoot issues and contain threats more easily. Failure to appropriately protect the sensitive and confidential data of clients may be the cause of malpractice claims in certain circumstances.

Firms should ensure IT security professionals are accessible to remote working professionals and able to isolate remote devices when necessary and limit the potential damage to the firm’s network through that compromised device. Now more than ever firms and professionals must remain diligent and prepared against new risks of fraud and cyber-attacks. Keeping mindful of cyber threats in the midst of this crisis is critical to ensuring ongoing success.

Additional information: 

The FMG Coronavirus Task Team will be conducting a series of webinars on Coronavirus issues every day for the next week. We will discuss the impact of Coronavirus for companies in general, but also for business in insurance, healthcare, California specific issues, cybersecurity, and tort. Click here to register.

FMG has formed a Coronavirus Task Force to provide up-to-the-minute information, strategic advice, and practical solutions for our clients. Our group is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys who can address the multitude of legal issues arising out of the Coronavirus pandemic, including issues related to Healthcare, Product Liability, Tort Liability, Data Privacy, and Cyber and Local Governments. For more information about the Task Force, click here.

You can also contact your FMG relationship partner or email the team with any questions at [email protected].

**DISCLAIMER: The attorneys at Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP (“FMG”) have been working hard to produce educational content to address issues arising from the concern over COVID-19. The webinars and our written material have produced many questions. Some we have been able to answer, but many we cannot without a specific legal engagement. We can only give legal advice to clients. Please be aware that your attendance at one of our webinars or receipt of our written material does not establish an attorney-client relationship between you and FMG. An attorney-client relationship will not exist unless and until an FMG partner expressly and explicitly states IN WRITING that FMG will undertake an attorney-client relationship with you, after ascertaining that the firm does not have any legal conflicts of interest. As a result, you should not transmit any personal or confidential information to FMG unless we have entered into a formal written agreement with you.  We will continue to produce educational content for the public, but we must point out that none of our webinars, articles, blog posts, or other similar material constitutes legal advice, does not create an attorney client relationship and you cannot rely on it as such. We hope you will continue to take advantage of the conferences and materials that may pertain to your work or interests.** 

It is Time to Clean House – The Client Break-Up

Posted on: May 8th, 2019

By: Nancy Reimer

The end of tax season is an opportune time for certified public accounting firms to review their client roster to ensure existing clients are a good fit with the firm’s mission and culture. CPA’s are taught to exercise due diligence when accepting new clients. For example, a firm will  assess whether it has the required knowledge and skill to perform the work, whether the client’s expectations are reasonable, does its management team exhibit integrity and trustworthiness, had the client changed CPA’s often, is it negotiating down the fee, hesitant to pay a retainer, is the client delinquent in filing or does the client keep its records in poor condition? If satisfied with the answers, a firm will accept the client.

Once clients are in the door, however, should they stay? Is it difficult to get information timely from the client, does the client haggle over fees, fail to pay, act abusive towards staff, fake or inflate numbers to avoid tax payments or penalties, lack proper internal control or consistently fail to follow advice?

What about changes in the firm that may make servicing the client difficult? New technologies may make it difficult for certain clients to keep up, some clients may not be comfortable with online organizers and electronic engagement letters. Perhaps there is a staff-turnover losing technical expertise to perform certain services; or the cost of offering a service may outweigh the revenue generated by the service.

Firms should meet on an annual basis to review the direction of the practice and the client roster. It should determine how many clients it can comfortably serve, what services it performs best or at the highest rate of profit and the profile its ideal clients.  Problem or “toxic” clients should be terminated.

Once a firm has determined which clients it needs to terminate, it should devise a strategic plan for doing so. It is always a good practice to notify the firm’s insurer and liability carrier of its intent to terminate clients. Liability insurers may want to be informed of potential claims if a disgruntled client is terminated. Insurer’s loss prevention teams are experienced in terminating clients and may offer advice as to how to disengage a “problem” or “toxic” client.

Best practices dictate a disengagement letter sent by certified mail, return receipt requested is the best way to terminate a client. If, however, the client has formed a close personal relationship with a member of the firm then a face to face meeting may be warranted. Then a follow-up letter documenting the meeting should be sent.

Prior to notification, the firm should ensure all required documents are copied or scanned, all documents and authorizations are signed, all fees are paid (if possible) and all client documents are packaged and available for pick-up. Also, prepare the transfer authorization letter ahead of time for the client’s signature so the file can immediately be transferred to the successor CPA.

The disengagement letter need not identify any specific reason for the termination. Ideally, there are no impending, or tax filing, deadlines. If there are the firm should list those deadlines and what needs to be done to comply with the deadline. It is also a good idea to list all of the services the firm had performed for the client. If any projects are in progress, identify the stage of the project and what is necessary for completion.  The disengagement letter should identify the client’s responsibilities moving forward and issues to be addressed with the successor CPA. Finally, the firm should state it will assist in transferring the files to the successor CPA in accordance with the firm’s professional obligations.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Nancy Reimer at [email protected].

Insurance Company Adjuster May Be Liable for Bad Faith

Posted on: May 14th, 2018

By: Joyce Mocek

Recently a Washington Court of Appeals held that an insurance adjuster, employed by an insurance company, could be held personally liable for bad faith and violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in the context of adjustment of a claim. (Keodalah et al. v. Allstate Ins. Co., et al., No. 75731-8-I (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 26, 2018).

In this case, an insured sought uninsured/underinsured motorist benefits under its auto policy with Allstate.  Allstate’s claim adjuster determined that the insured was 70% at fault.  The insured argued the accident was due 100% to the uninsured motorist, not him.  However, Allstate refused to change its position that its insured was 70% responsible for the accident-offering the insured only $5,000.  At the trial a jury determined the insured was not responsible for the accident, and awarded the insured $108,868.

The insured then filed a second lawsuit against the insurance adjuster and its insurer for bad faith, claims under the Insurance Fair Conduct Act and the CPA.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the insured appealed.  The appellate court held that the adjuster was engaged in the business of insurance and acting as an Allstate representative had a duty to act in good faith, and could be sued for bad faith individually.  On the CPA issue, the Court rejected prior decisions that had held there must be a contractual relationship to be liable under the CPA.  Thus, the Court determined the insured could sue the adjuster individually for bad faith and CPA violations.

This decision may have far reaching implications as it opens the door for insureds to sue the insurance adjuster handling their claim, and/or any claims personnel, including supervisors, experts, or consultants.  Claims personnel may also be joined to defeat diversity.  There is also the potential for conflict between the claims professionals and their employer that may further complicate issues.   This case emphasizes the need to act in good faith, and engage in careful consideration of all issues involved in the claims process, and consider seeking legal counsel if any potential issues arise.

If you have any questions or would like more information please contact Joyce Mocek at [email protected].