Career Path - Kara Kessinger, CPA/PFS

Kara Kessinger
I earned my accounting degree at a very small school and when I was ready to graduate I didn’t have a clear direction of the career path that I wanted to take. I decided to go to graduate school where I earned my Masters in Taxation. Two of my favorite courses were Estate Planning and Personal Financial Planning. It was there where I developed my love for working with individuals.

Right out of graduate school, I has hired by Deloitte Haskins + Sells where I was fortunate enough to work with a partner who specialized in Executive Programs with Fortune Five Hundred Companies. The partner left the firm to join KPMG and I decided to follow suit. It was there that I built my PFP knowledge base. I ended up spending the next 14 years of my career providing compliance and  comprehensive and segmented personal financial planning services to corporate executives employed in financial services, utilities, manufacturing and insurance industries and advised privately held company owners and high net worth individuals. 

After five years of preparing analyses, I began reviewing personal financial plans that included long-term cash flow, retirement, qualified and non-qualified plan plans, survivorship and disability analyses, life insurance needs, qualified and non-qualified stock option exercises, college expense funding and/or income tax planning. I also became involved with developing a PFP tool box that was used nationally. It was in this time frame that I became a certified public accountant and Personal Financial Specialist through the AICPA. The one regret is that I did not sit for the CPA exam during school or right out of school. The more specialized I became, the harder it was to study for the non-tax portions of the CPA exam. In addition, my study time was limited with a full time job and busy seasons.

In addition to the personal financial plans that I reviewed, I recommended estate planning techniques and ideas such as credit shelter trusts, marital trusts, asset titling, revocable trusts, powers of attorney, living wills, outright gifting programs to heirs, generation skipping transfer tax issues, qualified personal residence trusts, family limited partnerships, charitable remainder trusts, irrevocable life insurance trusts and grantor retained annuity trusts. I coordinated my efforts with attorneys to draft and review estate planning documents.

When the firm started a registered investment advisory firm, I worked with the advisors to perform asset allocations, money manager searches and mutual fund screenings. It was those investment advisors that I worked with who implemented the investment plan and portfolio allocations based on the plans that we prepared.

After 15 years in Pubic Accounting I wanted a change so I took a position with a community bank to start an affiliate which provided fee-only based personal financial planning services including income tax compliance, portfolio allocations, mutual fund searches, retirement planning and estate planning to existing and potential Bank Clients. The bank had an investment advisory firm that I worked with to implement the investment strategies.

At this time, I really started to market my skills by starting a monthly newsletter which focused on Individuals and Business Owners for distribution to clients and potential clients. I also wrote a few articles for the Waccamaw Community Foundation’s newsletter and the PeeDee magazine. I hosted seminars and networking dinners with clients and presented at professional meetings including Rotary Clubs, Chamber of Commerce Events and Estate Planning Council Meetings.

The company that I started was really gaining traction when a national bank acquired the community bank. During this time period my parents had retired and moved out of state so I decided to move closer to “home.” Having been with a Big Four Accounting Firm and having been a CEO and President of a company that I built from ground up, I decided to look for a position with a regional firm. After several mergers, I ended up being part of a national, top 15 firm, CliftonLarsonAllen, where I am a principal and the Eastern Private Client Tax Leader. My group is part of a larger group we call Private Client Services which encompasses both the individual taxes and personal financial planning.

Over the years, the regulatory environment for CPAs providing personal financial planning services has changed quite a bit. It is interesting to note that I have never held assets under management nor sold products during my career. While I no longer provide fee-only personal financial planning services directly to clients, I do work very closely with our Registered Investment Advisory  firm to provide seamless, integrated financial services to the “traditional CPA firm” clients. I still provide advanced estate, gift and charitable planning technique services directly to my clients as well as work with the investment advisors to provide those services to their clients where we don’t overlap.  Oftentimes, our clients do overlap so we collaborate to deliver the services that they need.

I have been very fortunate in my career to work with individual clients. The one-on –one meetings and client interactions provide meaning to the services that I provide. It is a joy to make differences in peoples lives. My job is not work, it is a fulfilling and rewarding career.