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Just as there’s a medical specialist for most every ailment, there’s a financial specialist for most every money-related problem or need. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Wall Street’s self-regulatory organization, lists 212 different credentials or designations, ranging from AAI (accredited adviser in insurance) to WMS (wealth management specialist).
So when the time comes to seek professional help to plan retirement finances, deal with debt, rethink investments or take on any other money-related task, your first move is to find the right expert.
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But all those abbreviations that pros list on their business cards — certifications, designations and memberships they use as evidence of their pedigree, education and expertise — can confuse more than inform. “Some designations have real coursework behind them, and others are designed to look like they do,” says Barbara Roper, senior adviser to the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. To make it easier to find the best advice for your particular financial need, here’s a guide to some key identifying marks and credentials of relevant experts.
Remember, though: Credentials are only part of the equation. In the end, you want a pro who has real, hands-on experience helping people with situations like yours.
1. The tax preparer
If your return is fairly basic, you can hire any reputable professional who has what’s known as a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN, which is required for individuals who get paid to prepare returns. (You can also get your return prepared for free by an AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteer.) Got something more complex — for instance, do you own a business with inventory? Look for an enrolled agent (EA). Granted by the IRS, the EA designation indicates that a professional has expertise in tax procedures and, unlike many other tax preparers, can represent you in an IRS audit. EAs earn the credential either through working at the IRS or by passing a three-part exam. Like EAs, certified public accountants (CPAs) can do your taxes and meet with the IRS, but they can also handle other accounting needs; many have specialties, such as personal financial planning and business valuation. They undergo a lengthy course of study — usually several semesters’ worth of college-level courses — and pass a rigorous national exam.
Where to find one: