CPA/PFS - A Credential By Any Other Name is Not the Same 

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Clients need an enormous amount of trust to put their hard-earned assets into the hands of a credible financial advisor. When selecting an advisor, they will consider qualifications including financial planning expertise, experience, reputation, credentials, how the advisor is compensated (i.e., fees, commissions etc.), and the ability of the planner to remain objective while acting in the best interest of the client. CPA financial planners begin the process with one leg up on the competition with those three letters, C-P-A. Studies have consistently shown that CPAs have earned a valued place as one of the most trusted advisors to individuals and businesses alike.

Consequently, the AICPA saw the need to develop a specialty credential in financial planning exclusively for CPAs, because in a competitive marketplace clients consider specialty credentials to be proof of knowledge and skill. The Personal Financial Specialist Credential (PFS) was created in 1987 for the sole purpose of distinguishing the skills and reputation of CPAs in the broader financial planning market; to set them apart from the "alphabet soup" of other financial planning credentials and to give them an advantage in the marketplace.

Biggest is Not Always the Best

When compared to other financial planning credentials, the CPA/PFS is not the most widely known designation among consumers. Recognition of the PFS is increasing, however, as PFS is repeatedly being mentioned and recommended by personal finance reporters in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, and others. Even without the highest brand recognition, CPA/PFS signifies a higher level of skill and knowledge and carries greater prestige to many. Only CPAs can become PFS credential holders, and for this reason there are many competitive advantages they enjoy, including:

  1. A core competency in tax, estate, and retirement planning, as well as charitable giving, which enables them to address their clients' comprehensive financial planning needs;
  2. Observing professional standards and ethics as required by the AICPA; and

A reputation as one of the most trusted advisors.

It is important for CPAs that practice financial planning to distinguish their unique skill sets and promote their competitive advantages by becoming CPA/PFS credential holders. Holding any other financial planning credential will not communicate how their level of expertise and experience surpasses that of other financial advisors.

CPA/PFS Credential Holders Require Support from their Own Profession

CPA financial planners have special needs that can best be fulfilled by the CPA profession. Because these professionals often incorporate their financial planning services into their tax practices, they face challenges such as balancing their time between tax and PFP work; staying informed of compliance and regulatory matters; selecting financial planning software that will integrate with their tax programs; and keeping abreast of trends in the CPA PFP profession. For guidance and support with these issues, it is most fitting for them to turn to their CPA/PFS community and the AICPA. Unlike any other competitive credential program, the AICPA's CPA/PFS program caters solely to the specialized needs of CPA financial planners. Furthermore, the members of the CPA/PFS community collaborate on best practices, share ideas and help each other with practice development issues in a variety of forums.

It is also important that CPAs who are looking to start a PFP practice, expand their PFP practice, or partner with/outsource to a financial planning expert, look to a CPA/PFS first. The CPA profession is somewhat unique in that it has buyers and sellers under one roof. CPAs that are "buyers" can greatly benefit from partnering with, hiring or outsourcing to other CPAs with specialty credentials like PFS (the "sellers"). CPAs share a common educational background in accounting and finance and are bound by the same ethical and professional standards.

CPA/PFS Credential Holders Receive Abundant Marketing Benefits

It is clear that CPA/PFS credential holders are distinguished in the market. The AICPA's public relations program promotes CPA/PFS credential holders as top providers of financial planning services and has increased awareness of the CPA/PFS credential among consumers. In the past year alone, several hundred media interviews were conducted with CPA/PFS credential holders as spokespeople. As a result of this exposure, CPA/PFS credential holders have experienced more recognition in the marketplace and increased new business opportunities.

In addition to receiving publicity and brand recognition, CPA/PFS credential holders receive exclusive marketing benefits from the AICPA, including practice management guidance, tools and various promotional opportunities such as:

  • Free marketing and media training workshops and
  • Web seminars;
  • Serving as media spokespersons for interviews on PFP and financial literacy topics;
  • Web site tools to help them promote their practices as CPA/PFS credential holders;
  • Inclusion in the "Find a PFS" database that consumers and industry stakeholders use to search for qualified financial planners;
  • Guest appearances on the AICPA's 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy Program's "Ask the Money Doctor" portal where consumers ask personal finance questions of the experts;
  • Occasions to author articles for publication in financial planning-related newsletters and magazines.

It Makes Sense to Become a Member of the PFP Section

The AICPA encourages CPAs to join specialized communities in the accounting profession and obtain credentials designed exclusively for CPAs. The AICPA PFP Section comprises not only PFS credential holders, but also CPA financial planners that are establishing their PFP practices and want guidance and education that will help them grow and enhance their services. These PFP professionals—along with PFS credential holders—belong to the AICPA's PFP Section. The PFP Section also offers the community a wide variety of resources, practice tools, educational guides, Web seminar sessions and discounts on PFP-related products and conferences. Generally, members of the PFP Section who demonstrate proficiency in providing PFP services move on to obtain the CPA/PFS credential in order to demonstrate expertise to the consumer market.

CPAs interested in pursuing the CPA/PFS credential need only complete a short two-page application and attest to the following qualifications consisting of:

  • Business experience in one or more of the following areas—Personal Financial Planning; Retirement Planning; Estate Planning; Personal Income Tax Planning; Risk Management & Insurance Planning; Retirement Planning; Charitable Planning; Investment Planning; and Special Needs;
  • Education - CPE in the personal financial planning body of knowledge; attending PFP-related AICPA or State CPA Society conferences; presenting technical papers; or authoring research in PFP; and
  • Examination—proof of your examination taken for one or more of the following: PFS, CFP, or ChFC credentials. 

Completing the online application and becoming a CPA/PFS automatically enrolls a CPA in the PFP Section without any extra cost. CPAs who do not qualify for the CPA/PFS credential but are interested in joining the PFP Section to gain access to beneficial PFP knowledge, resources and opportunities can enroll in the PFP Section.

Demand for qualified, credible financial planners is growing as the population ages. Set this against a backdrop of other advisors being blamed for unscrupulous practices as well as an overwhelming, blurring choice of specialty credentials, and one can see it is essential for CPA financial planners to distinguish their services with the PFS Credential. For more information about the CPA/PFS credential and the PFP Section, please visit the membership section.


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