Enrolled agents (EAs) are tax professionals authorized to represent taxpayers before the IRS. These agents have "unlimited practice rights," meaning that they are allowed to represent any kind of taxpayer -- individual, business or organization -- and are authorized to deal with any federal tax issue. They can represent clients in all dealings with the IRS, from filing forms and returns to defending them in audits.

Certification by the IRS

Federal regulations give unlimited practice rights before the IRS to only three kinds of professionals:

  • lawyers,
  • certified public accountants (CPAs), and
  • enrolled agents (EAs)

Lawyers and CPAs are licensed by the states where they practice. Enrolled agents are certified by the IRS and can practice anywhere in the United States. Enrolled agent status is the highest level of IRS certification. Though the IRS certifies other types of tax professionals, such as enrolled actuaries and registered tax return preparers, their practice rights are limited.

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Who's Qualified to be an Enrolled Agent

There are two ways to become an enrolled agent:

  • By passing a comprehensive three-part exam that covers both individual and business tax rules, as well as various IRS procedures.
  • By working for the IRS at least five years in a job that requires interpreting and applying the tax code.

Anyone applying to be an enrolled agent must pass a background check, which includes a review of the applicant's tax transcript -- essentially, a record of past tax obligations or payments. Someone who has failed to file or pay taxes as required can be denied enrollment.

Continuing Education Requirements

Enrolled agents are required to take part in continuing education to stay up to date on changes in tax law. According to the Treasury Department Circular 230 which governs practice before the IRS, an agent must take at least 72 hours of continuing education courses every 3 years, including at least 16 hours each year. At least two hours of the annual training must be in ethics.

Ethical standards for agents

Federal law requires that anyone practicing before the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, have "good character" and "good reputation," in addition to having the necessary knowledge and skills to handle tax matters. Once certified, enrolled agents -- and other tax professionals -- can be suspended or even lose their right to practice for the following reasons:

  • Incompetence
  • "Disreputable conduct," such as being convicted of a crime
  • Willfully violating tax laws or regulations
  • Misleading or threatening a client with the intent to defraud

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