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Starting a small business? Upgrading your computer systems? Developing an estate plan or trying to reduce next year's taxes? A certified public accountant (CPA) can help. According to the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants, how much a CPA can help depends on your ability to find the right one and clearly communicate your own goals and objectives.

Business owners and managers of various for-profit and not-for-profit organizations turn to CPAs for a wide range of services — from traditional auditing to advice on developing effective accounting systems, maximizing operations, and resolving management problems. In addition, individuals increasingly rely on CPAs not only for preparing taxes, but also for personal financial planning, such as building college funds, planning for retirement, and creating estate plans. Whatever your reason for needing a CPA's services, here are a few suggestions for finding one.

— Referrals from friends, neighbors, and co-workers are one of the best ways of locating a CPA. Business people in your field as well as lawyers or bankers can be especially helpful. You also can seek out leads at meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, local small business associations, or the professional associations to which you belong.

In searching for a CPA, be sure to look for someone who works with businesses your size or with financial issues similar to your own.

Interviewing Tips — When meeting with a CPA, be prepared to clearly explain why you need a CPA's assistance and the results you expect. Then ask about his or her qualifications, profiles of typical clients, and availability.

Also find out exactly who will be handling your work. Is it the CPA with whom you’re meeting or someone else in the firm? If others in the firm will be involved, take time to meet these individuals and learn about their professional credentials and experience.

Determining Your Compatibility — Like finding the right mate, finding the right CPA requires that you determine the compatibility of your personalities. For example, if you are looking for financial planning assistance and have typically been very conservative and risk adverse, will the CPA help you develop a more balanced investment strategy? What about the frequency with which you want to meet or speak with your CPA? If you are the type of individual who will want to call your CPA once or twice a week, find out whether he or she can provide that kind of access.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask about fees. The rates of CPAs vary widely from $100 per hour to several hundred dollars. The services you need, the complexity of your financial situation, the experience of the CPA, and the area of the country you live in will all impact the CPA's fees. If you plan to work with a firm that employs CPAs at various levels, find out how much you will have to pay for staff accountants, managers, and partners. You can then compare this to other firms in the area.

If you have specific deadlines for work to be completed by your CPA, make sure the CPA can meet them. However, keep in mind that to get the most value from a CPA, you should be prepared to enter into a relationship that will grow over time and adjust to your changing financial needs.

You seek the expertise of CPAs at tax and audit time, of course. But CPAs also promote personal and professional financial security year round. Visit the CPA Referral Service on the MACPA Web site to search for a CPA in your geographical area or specific area of expertise. This article was submitted by the Michigan Association of CPAs.