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The enrolled agent (EA) designation is one held by more than a few financial advisors and in this episode Steven interviews Zac Spainhour, an Advisor who has recently become an EA to discuss the designation and what it means for his clients. Zac shares his experience with actually getting the designation and what the process looked like but perhaps more importantly, Steven and Zac talk about how value really gets delivered and what any Advisor can do for their clients regardless of the acronyms after their name.
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Hello everyone and welcome to the next episode of the Retirement Tax Services Podcast. My name is Steven Jarvis and today with me on the show I have Zac Spainhour, who is an enrolled agent and a financial advisor and was willing to come on the show and talk about what it was like to become an enrolled agent to get his EA. So Zach, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me, Steven. I appreciate it. Good to be here.
Yeah, I’m really excited that you could join today. I get a lot of questions from advisors about, Hey, should I go get my CPA? Should I go get my EA? What are these other designations that I can kind of add to the end of my alphabet soup? And I have a little bit of mixed feelings when people are pursuing designations just to add something else to their business card. But I was excited to bring you on the show because there was a really thoughtful, kind of intentional process behind why you win about getting your EA. So I’d love for you to talk about what prompted you to do this and then really share what your journey was like so that anybody who’s considering it will have a better idea of what it actually takes to get the designation.
Absolutely. So to start it from the beginning, as many of you know, I work with Anthony Ruffalo. He’s another well-known advisor on LinkedIn. And when I joined forces with Anthony back in early 2021, actually one of the things that he wanted me to do upon hiring me is go out and get my EA. So that’s part of what put it on my radar. I’d heard of the credential before, but that’s when it became more focal. So, really my end goal in him in asking me to get it, our goal was really just to get me up to speed as a younger, newer advisor on the tax code as quickly as fathomly possible, cuz both of us understand just how central of a role taxes play in literally every single financial plan out there. And every single planner should be integrating that knowledge and expertise into their process so they can address that with clients.
So in terms of what my process looked like, really I started working on my EA 2021. So start to finish it. I’d say it took me six to seven months to study for each part of the exam and actually go out and get the credential. So I actually achieved the credential, I’d say March, 2022 is when, when that came about. Just to give an overview, this is something I get asked about all the time. I probably get two or three financial advisors messaging me on LinkedIn every single week saying, Hey, I’m interested in getting the EA. What’s the process like? You know, what are your thoughts? Who should I go to for exam prep? There’s so many questions within there. So clearly a lot of advisors are thinking about this credential right now. And so my process was, it’s three parts. Its part one is the individual tax code.
In my opinion, for people who primarily work with retail clients, I think that is from a knowledge perspective, the most helpful nugget of the entire EA curriculum because it’s a deep dive of the individual tax code, how it applies not to businesses but individuals and you know, so if you work with individuals, I think that’s a really natural starting point. So that was part one in my opinion, that’s one of the easier ones. Part two is business tax code. As many will have heard of, if you look into the EA all online, you’ll find that most people find that to be the most difficult part of the EA curriculum. And I think a lot of it comes down to unfamiliarity because all of us to some extent have some type of familiarity with the individual tax code. Cause we all have to deal with it.
You know, every single year we all deal with the individual tax code, but the business side it’s gonna be more nuanced, unfamiliar. It certainly was for me, I found it to be incredibly challenging. It’s just a lot of things a lot of people have never even thought of in terms of how taxes apply to partnerships, corporations, et cetera. So that was certainly a tougher part of the EA for me and for many others. Part three is representation. This is, you know, we’re gonna be really hit or miss as to whether it’s relevant to someone getting the EA, especially an advisor. Cuz at the end of the day, if you don’t have an interest in representation, it’s just what I would call a necessary evil in getting the credential. But overall not super challenging, especially compared to part two. So, and the fun thing about the EA is you can take each part in whatever order you see fit.
So, me personally, I went part one, I got that out of the way first cuz that was in my opinion, most relevant to my end goal, which is using that knowledge and expertise to help out my clients who are primarily individuals. But you know, it’s something that could make sense as starting with that part two, knowing it’s a doozy, getting it outta the way first and foremost, and taking part one and three in whatever order you see fit. So all in, you know, each part probably took me two to three months to study and prepare for to go and take a proctored exam and then once you’re done with those three, you apply to become an EA. They do some type of background check on there and assuming everything looks good, you then are an EA and of course you gotta get your P10, but you know, that’s a small step in the process. So that’s kind of an overview of how I approach the EA at least from a curriculum perspective.
Well Zach, I appreciate you sharing that. Every exam, every certification’s a little bit different. It’s not one that I personally have. So I’d like to be able to hear from people directly who have gone through the process. If we take a step back, especially you mentioned in there that this wasn’t necessarily on your radar, but Anthony kind of brought this to you of, hey, this is something that as a new advisor speak great way to really get your tax knowledge just advanced rather rapidly. Which I love having forcing mechanisms, right? All the tax code exists. I mean you can go read all 80,000 pages yourself, but having a forcing mechanism to say here’s specifically things to look at there’s definitely some advantages there. But what I’d love to have you speak to is, before Anthony brought this to you, I mean, what was your idea or what was your impression of what an EA even was and how has that kind of understanding evolved now that you’ve gone through the process?
Yeah, I mean prior to that, I originally wasn’t, it was similar to probably the public’s general perception he ate. I don’t really know what that is. Is that a secret agent from James Bond is, you know, is that like, does he work for the MIB or something enrolled agent? You know, it sounds pretty slick, right? But no, and in reality I kind of looked to the EA prior to getting it. I kind of looked to it as something akin to a CPA, but I wasn’t really clear as to what the difference was between those credentials. I kind of looked to it as a lesser known comparable credential to the CPA. But there’s a huge some pretty big differences between the two, which I’ve since learned. So, you know, I didn’t have a lot of perception of it prior to getting it.
Yeah, the EA is an interesting one because the CPA has to be one of the most well known professional designations, I mean in the country. I mean, regardless of whether we’re talking about financial planning or taxes or whatever it might be. It might not always be completely accurate, but people recognize the CPA designation and have some sort of impression around it generally being a positive credential that mean who knows exactly what it means. There are CPAs in jail, but hope, thankfully not too many.
EA is a little bit more mysterious for people. And so I’m sure other EAs listening probably will object to it being second tier to CPA. We won’t have that debate here, but especially on the tax side, it’s certainly more, much more focused. CPAs cover a lot of different topics. EAs are very specific to taxes. One of the things I just don’t have insight into, cause I’m not an EA I can see how clients, how prospects, how taxpayers respond to me being a CPA. Can you share it all or have you had experiences with how clients react to or acknowledge the fact that you’re an EA?
Yeah, it’s more positive than you would expect. So like I hinted at the general public or average Joe, they don’t know what the heck an EA is. Unless somebody’s tax preparer or someone that they work with on the tax side is an EA, chances are they don’t even know what that means. But what I found, and I was a little nervous about that when I first got it. Cause I was like, okay, if I haven’t even heard of this, how are clients going to react if and when I tell them that I’m an EA? But the reaction’s been a pleasant surprise. I would describe it typically because most people don’t know what it is. They say, you know, you’re an EA. Well what the heck is that? And actually if you go to my LinkedIn profile, you’ll see in the parentheses next to my name on there, I have asked me what EA means.
And that’s a great conversation starter cuz again, like a lot of people don’t know, but once I kind of give a general explanation of what it is, you know, a credential that’s issued by the IRS that focuses on everything with respect to our tax code. As soon as I explain that, that’s all most people need to hear, I’ve found they say, oh you know, you have some knowledge or background with taxes. That’s awesome. That’s, you know, an unexpected surprise for a lot of people cuz they don’t typically look to an advisor for better or for worse. Oftentimes they don’t look to an advisor as somebody who can have conversations or knowledge specifically around taxes. So, you know, usually I get a really positive reaction once I kind of explain what the credential is. It just takes maybe a little more preface than if you told somebody, Hey, I’m a CPA.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Because even if they don’t recognize what an EA is, everyone pays taxes. Everyone is very familiar with the fact that it’s a complicated area, that it takes a lot of time and commitment to understand it. And so compared to a lot of other designations, it does seem a little bit like the financial planning world has more of an alphabet soup than just about any other industry. And even as people explain to me what some of the designations are sometimes I get into the explanation and I’m still not entirely sure what it means or if I should care as a consumer, but having a tax focus credential I think is probably a much lower hurdle to get over for people to be, oh, okay, this means that Zach spent a lot of time making sure he’s an expert in this area.
Exactly. Yeah, and I agree with you. I think our industry has an alphabet soup problem when it comes to credentials. It’s like, I don’t know, I think some advisors see them as Pokemon cards, they gotta go catch them all. But you know, some more valuable than others. EA I think is an incredibly valuable one, but not if you don’t have an end goal and if and when you choose to pursue that, you know, it’s all about starting with the end in mind. That’s how I view credentials. I’m certainly not in the business of going out and collecting them, but I think starting with intentionality to actually utilize it properly is crucial. And, you know, taking that step further back and deciding do I even need that credential to get where I’m trying to go?
Yeah, I’m really glad you brought that up. It’s a really important conversation to have with any credential, whether that’s CPA or EA or CFP or any other TLA that I decide to make up as we go through this. Having that intentionality and understanding what it is and is not going to do for you because that’s great that the overwhelming response from clients is positive, but clearly that’s in and of itself, the fact that you’ve got EA after your name is not going to dramatically change the trajectory of your career. If all you do is list it after your name because you have a great follow on LinkedIn. You put out a lot of great content, but there’s still a huge majority of the people who even follow you or see you who probably still have no idea what an EA is. They’re not following you because you’re an EA they’re not, not following you because you’re an EA.
And so, like you said, it’s all about that intentionality. And I can totally see where Anthony was coming from with, hey, you’re new, you’re visibly a young guy and so having this credential, having this something else that sets you apart, that shows people, hey, you committed and followed through on something, whatever else that might mean, it at least keeps the conversation going, but then it’s up to you after that to deliver value to demonstrate that it means anything at all. So I’d love to pivot and talk about how are you incorporating the fact that you have an above average tax knowledge into how you serve clients.
Above average tax knowledge? I love that. And that’s totally fair. But that’s a funny way of putting it. Yeah. So you know, now I think that to your point, that’s where the real magic happens is okay, it’s one thing to kinda explain to what it is to somebody and think, oh, that sounds cool, but when you actually put that into action, that’s when I think people see the real importance of having an expertise like that. So in terms of how I use it really broadly speaking, it’s just having more confidence in having tax center conversations with my clients. Really just, you know, setting aside all the other facets of financial planning that we typically deal with and really honing in on that tax component. You know, the knowledge that I have from the EA, it really is a big confidence booster in feeling prepared and equipped to have more in-depth tax planning conversations.
Like, should we be doing Roth conversions? Okay, well here’s X, Y, and Z, here are some of the factors we should be looking at. Should we be realizing capital gains in our portfolio? What’s the impact on that? How does that flow through to my tax situation? And you know, how do we kind of assess, you know, where those thresholds are in terms of whether or not that makes sense. So those are, you know, two examples of conversations I commonly have with people that I feel more empowered to do so because I’m an EA. And I will say too, a great tool that I use to kind of guide these conversations when I’m working with a client is something you’re aware of, Steven. It’s called Holistiplan. It’s this great software that we have access to through our vendor program here at LPL.
And what Holistiplan plan is, I can upload a client’s completed tax return, it provides an analysis, it looks at, you know, credits, deductions that someone may or may not be eligible for. But the real power comes, okay, well, let’s run a projection for this year. If we execute it on this Roth conversion for example, how might that impact your tax situation? And it’s a really great visual tool for kind of illustrating that to the client and just kind of, you know, what I like about it is it choose out this one page report and it’s really easy for a client to understand and I can run different scenarios and see, hey, if we execute on this one particular type of tax planning, you know, what might that impact be? And I think quantifying that impact is really important to make sure that you’re doing, you know, something sensible, but also it makes it easier to show that impact when you’re working with the client. So in summary, it’s just having more confident in-depth conversations around tax planning and how that relates to people’s financial worlds, their portfolios, et cetera. And then really kind of knowing what I’m doing when it comes to sitting down with a tool like a Holistiplan and presenting that to a client.
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Yeah, Zach, there’s just some really great stuff in there. I’ll try not to go down too much of a rabbit hole here, but you bring up this topic that I think is really fascinating for the financial planning industry because I’m not an advisor. I’m pretty open and honest about that. And so I’ve been fully focused on the advising industry for about a little over two years now. Actually, the podcast just passed two years, which is kind of crazy for me. But taxes is a fascinating conversation because, even when I first came into the industry two years ago, it seemed pretty split or at least a lot of people’s impressions was that okay, if you’re in the IRA space you can do tax planning. And this is this huge differentiator because only people in the IRA space can do any tax planning cuz all those people with those those big firms, they’re not doing any value to their clients anyways.
And so there’s this, and some of that’s just the people I was around and hearing from, but it does feel like there’s been this shift that’s been rapidly happening where some of the bigger firms are not just recognizing there’s so much value in these areas. I think they always knew there was value. It was trying to navigate this line of where do we wander into tax advice and where do we potentially get ourselves in trouble? And so it’s very encouraging to me to see more and more the big firms, the LPLs of the world saying, you know what, we need to empower our advisors to be able to do something in this arena. There’s still gonna be limitations on what you can and can’t do. That’s true for any advisor. Just because you’re in the IRA space doesn’t mean you have just a free pass to do whatever the heck you want. Right? If you might think it’s that way, but you should probably reevaluate that. But it’s really encouraging to me. But you mentioned that you started in 2021, so I would imagine that this change is a pretty stark contrast for you because you didn’t really have that much time in the industry to kind of get beat down by, ah, we can’t really do very much around taxes to now wait, go ahead, go use holistiplan.
I only kind of know shift you’re describing of which is since I’ve gotten started in this business, you know, there’s always been this heightened interest around tax planning and I think there are also heightened expectations on the client’s end that you are addressing this in some capacity because if you aren’t addressing it, they’re going to find somebody who is addressing it. And so I think there’s this growing expectation from clients that you will at least acknowledge it and discuss it in some capacity. And if it’s not an expectation, it’s an opportunity to delight at the very least. Cuz like I said, it’s that reaction when people find out you have any type of background in taxes, it’s, you know, people get excited about that. They do well as excited as one can get about taxes, right? But yeah, so I only really know that that shift you’re speaking of and I live and breathe it. So I think maybe part of that was the urgency I felt to go out and be more focused on that right from the get go.
I like that you brought up the consumer expectation around that because that is definitely very much there. I’ve met a lot of advisors again who maybe have been in a more tax friendly compliance space for a number of years who see this as a differentiator between themselves and other advisors regardless of where they might be. But those consumer expectations continue to evolve and they always will that as different pieces of financial planning become easier to do with software, it’s gonna be that much more important that the advisor has a level of expertise and an ability to communicate that shows the client what the value of working with that advisor is. You talk about holistiplan, which we use as well, it’s a great tool, but even as I talk to the creators of holistiplan, they’ll acknowledge, hey, this is a tool but it needs an operator.
And so it’s still so important that as an advisor you’re doing things to sharpen your skills and to make sure that you can take those tools and do something meaningful with your clients. And so whether that is formally going through a designation, like getting your enrolled agent, getting your EA and sitting for the exams and having that forcing mechanism of, I’m gonna do these things within this amount of time or again that that information’s publicly available. If you have the discipline to go through that same level of detail on your own more power to you, I can tell you just the realities of life. Most people won’t go to that level of detail if they don’t have some sort of forcing mechanism. And so we can argue all day about how well recognized or the visibility of a particular designation or whether the designation itself makes a difference. But like you talked about Zack, going through that process, committing to that amount of time on those topics is gonna make all the difference in the world and how you work with your clients.
Yeah and you know, like you said, if your end goal is just to have more confidence and knowledge around having tax conversations with your clients, the EA is not the only path there. It’s not, you know, you don’t even necessarily need a credential to achieve that end goal. You know, you just have to find a framework. Maybe it’s RTS, maybe it’s self-learning, whatever that framework is to meet that end objective. You know, you just have to find what works for you. For me, that was the EA I thought it was an incredibly helpful framework for kind of summarizing and organizing just the broad swath of information that is our tax code and kind of digesting that down in a way that, you know, I’m actually learning it and kind of an accountability mechanism too. You don’t have to go get your EA to be a more tax focused financial advisor. And I even say that as somebody who went out and got my EA.
Zach from a practicality standpoint, cuz I love, I mean theory’s great, but what matters is what we can do in practice what we can do with clients. How do you feel like you’ve gotten the best reps in as far as practicing how this actually looks when you have to communicate it to a client? Like what is it that you are doing that like gives you the hands-on practice, so great, you went and took a bunch of exams. What are you doing in your, just your day-to-day life as a financial advisor that’s getting you the reps that’s now building your confidence even further than just having that designation?
Yeah, a hundred percent. Because you know all that knowledge if whether you choose to seek it on your own or find a curriculum to do it, it’s useless if you don’t put it into practice. So, what I’ve found is the most helpful is this year for example, I am becoming a lot more adamant about requesting copies of clients’ tax returns now that we’ve got tax season behind us. Well for most of us anyway now that tax season is by large behind us. I’ve gotten much more proactive about really being adamant about getting a copy of a client’s tax return. Cause it takes a lot of the guesswork out of trying to have a conversation around taxes and really man, just sitting down and reviewing different 1040s reviewing the tax return, understanding what is the impact. Every single line on a tax return tells a story. Do you know what each line means? If there is or isn’t a number populated in one particular line, do you know what that means about someone’s situation? And really that has been the best way of reinforcing my knowledge. It’s just reviewing a return line by line, having that background to understand the implications of each line and then using that as kind of a starting point to start a more in-depth tax conversation with a client. That’s by and large the most helpful part for me.
I totally agree with that. There’s nothing like being able to see where those things come through on a tax return and for especially on the planning side of things, that’s both being able to look through and see, okay, how does the things we worked together with a client on last year get reported? Did we make sure that those came through where we expected? And do they have the impact that we expect as well as potentially identifying opportunities for the future? I encourage advisors to go through their own tax return, go through team members tax returns and then yes, absolutely you should be getting tax returns for every single client every single year because great news taxes change every year. And reason I say that’s great news is that means you automatically have a way to deliver value to your clients every single year regardless of anything else you’re doing for them.
You know that taxes are gonna come back around every year. That’s something you can look at together, that you can provide education, that you can identify opportunities that we can make sure that things are getting reported correctly. Cuz as you very well know, Zack, as you go through returns, there are a lot of things that don’t just happen on the tax return by default. There’s things that don’t get reported very well from the custodians unless there’s somebody in a taxpayers, in a client’s life who’s got the experience and expertise who’s gone through these returns line by line and says, no, this is the line we should see this rollover come through on or not come through on if it wasn’t taxable. And to have the experience to go through and do that, that’s just is such a tremendous way to add value because maybe even especially for your clients who are DIYs on the taxes, they’re seeing one tax return a year. If you’re a listener and you’re taking Zach’s advice and you’re getting tax returns and you’re reviewing them, you can quickly get to the point where you’re seeing dozens if not hundreds of tax returns every year. And now you just have a level of insight that your client is never gonna get without you.
Absolutely. And you know, to your point, a lot of people are self prepares and so if for example, as advisor, if you help them execute on something one year and they’re doing self preparing or it’s, you know, a tax professional, help them with their return that you’re not familiar with, it’s a super vital step to go in and say, all right, I helped this client do X, Y or Z. Let’s make sure, let’s verify that actually came through the way it’s supposed to. And if you’re not verifying, I mean you’re kind of just shooting in the dark, right?
Yeah. That’s a really, really core principle in accounting and taxes, probably in financial planning to some degree or another. It’s that idea of trust but verify this isn’t that even for our DIYers, it’s not that I don’t have confidence in their ability to follow the software, it’s that a lot of these things are not set up for ease of use for the taxpayer. Real simple example that just came up yet again this last week for me as I was going through a client tax return and they have a 1099 B that reports a capital gain and then buried way down on page 37 or something ridiculous, there’s this, and in my mind it’s in smaller font, it might not actually be, but it’s buried way down that says, oh actually there’s an adjustment to this basis. And you didn’t really have a gain, you had this small loss because it was from stock-based compensation and the taxes already been paid in a previous year. But this is one where we see all the time where a well-informed taxpayer doing their own tax return, sometimes a well-informed tax preparer trying to get through too many tax returns in a tax season is going through and typing in numbers and that gets missed and now somebody’s paying taxes twice on the same income. And I’m not sure there are worse ways to tip the IRS than that.
I couldn’t agree more, Steven. I mean, catching something like that instantaneous value add, I mean taking five minutes to review a return could potentially save somebody thousands of dollars. So that’s a win in my book.
Yeah, absolutely. Well Zach, we always like to take the information we’re sharing with advisors and make sure we turn it into value, which in my mind means we’re turning it into action. And so as you think specifically about the things you do to deliver value to your clients on taxes, what are actions you’d recommend to other advisors who want to do more in this area?
Absolutely. Step one, don’t assume. Don’t assume what you can and can’t do when it comes to having a conversation revolving around taxes. Talk to your compliance department, get ahead of it instead of just hiding behind the excuses. But I probably can’t do that. Why don’t you go find out for sure and talk to somebody and figure out at my firm what can and can’t I do. So you have an idea of what your parameters of operation are before you go down any kind of rabbit hole of seeking out credential or trying to integrate this more into your practice. So that is absolutely number one for me. Number two, assuming you can do what you want to when it comes to having tax conversations. Once you have that one taken care of figure out kind of what your end goal is, okay, I want to do more with taxes.
Great, well that’s a really vague objective. Get more specific with that. Really hone it down and figure out how you want to execute on that with your clients and figure out how do I gain the knowledge, how do I gain the experience and then how do I combine that knowledge and experience and bring that as more value to my clients. And then I’d say step three is, you know, regardless of what it is, if you just wanna generally know more about taxes, like we said before, just looking at just starting to look over returns and you know, starting to understand what each line means. That’s a great starting point. Even if you’re not working with a client’s return yet, maybe you’re looking at your own return, maybe you’re just looking at sample returns online. There’s so many ways to start getting experience, getting comfortable reviewing a return without having to ask for it from your clients yet or even figure out kind of how you’re going to get more involved with taxes. But no matter what your end goal is, I think every advisor could benefit from just getting more comfortable with that process.
Zach, I completely agree. I love that you led with that. Don’t assume it’s definitely a conversation I’m involved with quite often of what is that line between tax planning and tax advice. And I know that it can be a frustrating conversation to have with compliance at times, but I can assure listeners that I’m talking to compliance groups in all sorts of firms, big and small, some definitely big names. You would recognize that in the back of your head you’re probably thinking, ah, well they would never let their advisors do tax planning. They are, they’re making that transition. So don’t assume what you can or can’t do. Have that conversation. And then your second point goes right into that of make sure you have a goal for what the value you’re gonna deliver to clients is before you go and list on your website, Hey I do tax planning, make sure you know what that means to individual clients.
Even if that starts really simply saying that you deliver value through taxes does not have to mean that you’ve committed tax code to memory. In fact it probably shouldn’t. I haven’t either. And then I think you were a little bit nicer on the last one than I’ll be, you absolutely have to get tax returns for every single client every single year. That can mean starting small, like you said, of reviewing your own tax return, team members, family, friends, whoever it might be. But that needs to be with the goal of building towards you getting tax returns for every single client every single year. Cuz that’s where the real data comes from. That’s where the real impact can be had.
Well Zach, I really appreciate you coming on the show. You have already mentioned that you’re very active on LinkedIn. People can follow you there, anywhere else that people should be looking out for the great things you’re doing?
I’ve got a YouTube channel I haven’t posted on there in a while, but it’s something I want to pick back up so you can find me on YouTube. There’s a link on my LinkedIn profile where I have some more longer form in-depth content on there. There’s actually a video about the EA on there too. So if you want a further reinforcement of our topic today, there’s kind of a bite-size overview of the EA on there as well. But LinkedIn, that’s the main place to find me.
Awesome. Well Zac, thanks so much for being here. To all our listeners, thanks for listening. Until next time, good luck out there and remember to tip your server, not the IRS!
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