Accountant vs. Tax Specialist – which should you use and when?

9th November 2016

Hello. I’m Vikki Ashton, Tax & Payroll Manager at TTR Barnes Chartered Accountants. 

I took the route of becoming a tax specialist, rather than an accountant as I enjoy the problem-solving and analysis that comes with my role.

However, in my job, I frequently come across the misunderstanding of the difference between an accountant and a tax specialist.  The two roles are really quite different, each with distinct specialisms.  Confusing the two is a bit like going to see an optician to have a tooth removed! 

Each has their own, important role to play in ensuring efficient personal or corporate financial management, and substituting one for the other can have serious consequences on the standard of service received. 

What is an accountant?

Firstly, I should explain that there are two types of accountant; certified and chartered.  Generally speaking, the difference between the two is down to the organisation from which the individual was awarded their qualifications, and the nature of the qualifications themselves.

Chartered accountants must pass 15 exams and have logged more than 450 hours of relevant work experience in order to have the letters ACA or FCA after their name. They must then adhere to an annual programme of continuing professional development (CPD) to ensure their understanding and awareness of the latest legislation.   Their qualification is typically awarded by The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) or The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS).

Certified accountants (also called Chartered Certified Accountants just to confuse things!) must pass 14 exams and follow a similar programme of continuous professional development to that of a Chartered Accountant.

At TTR Barnes we are, in the main, Chartered Accountants and focus on putting our trainees through the ACA qualification. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s look at the differences between a Chartered Accountant and Tax Specialist.

The role of an accountant

An accountant’s role is one of the most diverse in the finance industry. They must be able to advise in a number of areas and therefore be up-to-date across a wide range of topics. An accountant’s role may cover one or any of the following:

  • Preparing profit and loss statements on behalf of a business
  • Setting up accounting processes for new companies
  • Advising companies on accounting processes
  • Analysing budgets and other financial information in order to advise where savings could be made
  • Helping to produce company budgets and cost-saving measures
  • Ensuring that company accounts and tax returns are prepared, filed and recorded; accurately and on time.

In order to prepare for competence across such a number of diverse subject areas, an accountant must cover a wide range of modules within their training programme. Within the ACA syllabus, these currently include:

  • Accounting
  • Assurance
  • Business and Finance
  • Law
  • Management Information
  • Principles of Taxation
  • Audit and Assurance
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Financial Management
  • Tax Compliance
  • Business Planning
  • Business Strategy
  • Corporate Reporting
  • Strategic Business Management
  • Case Study

So, although an accountant must show competency in broad and common areas of tax advice, it is just one of many areas that they must cover, and so their depth of knowledge may not reach the same level as that of a tax specialist when it comes to tax advice.

What is a tax specialist?

A tax specialist is someone who has taken the steps to develop specialisation within the area of taxation. There are three primary routes to becoming a tax specialist, each of which are open to ACA or ACCA qualified accountants.

CTA (Chartered tax advisor)

A Chartered Tax Adviser, or CTA, holds the most prestigious global chartered qualification in professional tax expertise. The syllabus is extremely comprehensive and centred across 6 main subject areas, each of which involve numerous and complex modules;

  • Taxation of Owner-Managed Businesses
  • VAT on UK Domestic Transactions, IPT & SDLT
  • Advanced Corporation Tax
  • VAT on Cross-Border Transactions & Customs Duties
  • Taxation of Individuals
  • Inheritance Tax, Trusts & Estates

ATT (Association of Taxation Technicians)

To qualify for the letters ATT after their name, an individual must have completed the relevant examinations with ATT, in addition to two years’ tax-specific work experience. Areas of study include:

  • Personal Taxation
  • Business Taxation & Accounting Principles
  • Business Compliance
  • Corporate Taxation
  • Inheritance Tax, Trusts & Estates
  • Value Added Tax

STEP (The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners)

The STEP qualification is often used as an extension of specialism for those already qualified as tax specialists – for example in trusts. To become a fully-qualified practitioner, an individual must first prove their vocational and professional experience, before embarking on a number of stages within STEP, culminating in the submission of 3 professional papers in specialist areas to the adjudicating body.

Which should I choose, an accountant or a tax specialist?

This decision depends entirely on the area in which you need advice

There will be instances where an accountant will be more suited to your requirement, even within the broader or common areas of taxation. However, for those seeking specialist or more complex tax advice then it is essential to employ the services of a tax specialist. Put simply, tax specialists have had more opportunity to study specific areas of taxation in much finer detail, giving them the ability to view individual client circumstances with a keener eye and spot opportunities that could otherwise be missed from someone without this greater depth of knowledge.

What is the risk of not choosing the right one?  

The main risk of not using a tax specialist when covering taxation issues is that areas of opportunity for more efficient taxation planning and tax relief will be missed. From the tax relief that can be claimed to the times at which it must be, a tax specialist’s role is to know and apply this knowledge in the best interests of the client.

At TTR Barnes we are in the advantageous position of being able to offer both accountancy and tax specialist advice. Depending on client requirements, we are able to move between the two roles to give best value and best practice service provision according to individual requirements.

If you would like to speak to me or one of the team in how we can help you with tax planning and efficiency, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Vikki Ashton, 0191 567 0304

Alternatively, if your needs are more accountancy-based, you can speak to our accounts and audits team, headed up by Karen Crozier.

Karen Crozier, 0191 567 0304

Article by Vikki Ashton, Tax & Payroll Manager TTR Barnes.  Correct at time of publishing November 2016

Chartered Accountants in Sunderland, offering expertise on everything from Tax and Business Planning,
to Accounts and VAT.