Firms Seek 'Fiduciary Accountants'

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With the responsibilities - and liabilities - of those who oversee direct investments growing, opportunities are increasing for CPAs in the area of fiduciary services.

As accountants branch out beyond traditional tax services, their roles here can fit easily with many of their pre-existing skills.

Today investment stewards such as attorneys, investment advisors, pension plan trustees and financial planners face increased exposure related to their fiduciary duties. For CPAs - many of whom are already attuned to fiduciary responsibilities as a part of their forensic or auditing work - serving as a consultant to these professionals is another way to ensure long-range career success. As more accounting firms move beyond the standard tax and auditing function, such consulting is also a way attract in new business, points out Jeffrey DuFour, managing director of the Tillit Group, a Princeton, N.J., company that provides independent consulting services to investment fiduciaries.

DuFour, who holds a variety of certifications and designations beginning with the CPA, the CFP and the Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst (AIFA), handles fiduciary consulting work, before and post-litigation. "Of course, many are waiting until they get sued to deal with fiduciary issues, but we're also beginning to handle more fiduciary consulting before there's a mention of litigation," he says. Certainly preventative medicine is better than the bitter pill of dealing with a lawsuit, he notes, and adds the skills needed for fiduciary consulting are usually things that most CPAs already have a handle on.

Skills and Certifications

"The work fits in very well with what most forensic accountants do," DeFour says. "It's their sweet spot, especially if they are doing any litigation work, since it's really all about prudence, process and documentation. In auditing, these are people who already understand internal controls. It's really all about taking existing skills and applying that to the requirements for fiduciaries." DuFour adds that many of the things CPAs already understand, in terms of financial reporting requirements, sync up with the fiduciary investment standards.

In addition, DuFour says new certifications in the field, such as the AIFA offered by the Center for Fiduciary Studies, is helping bring additional professionalism and attention to the role. The designation requires professional experience in addition to industry-related training.

"Of the people coming through the training right now, probably 20 to 25 percent are CPAs, and that number has been fairly steady since the beginning of the certification," says Donald B. Trone, director of the Center for Fiduciary Studies. Although the training process is nearly five years old, some of the organization's training goes back some eight years. "After Enron, we recognized that the industry was going to seek out professionals with fiduciary knowledge, and the most expeditious way to demonstrate the knowledge was to develop the specific certification," he explains. With the accounting field making a place for itself within the investment spectrum, especially as more accountants move into financial planning, such certifications are a natural offshoot.

Trone adds that the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is also acknowledging the evolving role of CPAs in the investment realm by helping define practices to evaluate investment stewards and advisors. While Trone admits that fiduciary consulting is certainly a "niche industry," he notes the work pays at a much higher rate than typical accounting work.