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How disaster CPAs help get you back on your feet

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Images of accountants are often pigeonholed: sitting at desks, poring over financial statements, calculators at the ready, scratching away with pencils. But the world of accounting has much more to offer than once believed. There are a number of accounting specialties that offer new options for students and existing accountants looking for a change.

Education in accounting

To become an accountant, students first earn bachelor's degrees in accounting or specialized fields such as internal auditing. And while an undergraduate degree requires 120 semester hours, most states require 150 semester hours in order to qualify to take the CPA exam. According to ThisWayToCPA.com, a website created for prospective CPAs by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, how a student achieves those 30 extra hours is up to them. Some options include seeking a double major, a combined five-year master's degree or simply getting a master's degree in a discipline such as a Master's of Accounting or a Master's of Science in Taxation. Each state has its own requirements, so students should check first before deciding.

Now, when is a certified public accountant or CPA not an accountant? Never; but while an accountant does not have to become a CPA, all CPAs must first be accountants. To become a CPA, accountants must pass a national exam and then meet the licensing requirements of the state in which they intend to practice. Many states require work experience as a prerequisite to taking the CPA exam.

What are disaster recovery CPAs?

Once licensed, some CPAs seek out specializations in their industry, such as a disaster recovery CPAs. What do disaster recovery accountants do, exactly? In the face of man-made, natural, terrorist or any other financial disaster that impacts individuals or businesses, disaster recovery CPAs help put together a plan for recovery. From evaluating business loss to personal financial impact, disaster recovery CPAs are a voice of calm in uncertain times. The administrative issues that come from disasters are often overwhelming and stressful, and a skilled CPA can help navigate the waters of financial uncertainty, giving help to clients as an advisor.

Not all work is done after the fact, however. Before disaster strikes, a disaster recovery CPA can help implement a plan in the event of such a problem. Mitchell Freedman is a CPA whose firm began concentrating more and more on disaster recovery services after the events of 9/11. Freedman assisted the National Endowment for Financial Education, the American Red Cross and the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) in creating "Disaster Recovery: A Guide to Financial Issues." Freedman's interest stems from his own experience in the Northridge Earthquake, plus as an accountant in Southern California he has helped many clients deal with the impact of mud slides, fires and earthquakes. He believes "CPAs -- particularly CPA financial planners and PFS (personal financial specialist) credential holders -- can help clients by helping them plan for disaster ahead of time." Disaster recovery CPAs help clients understand what will be needed after a disaster hits, which minimizes the stress and fear that accompanies such situations.

More than just alleviating fear, however, disaster recovery CPAs may be able to help protect clients from going out of business. The AICPA notes that a study from the University of Minnesota revealed that 93 percent of companies lacking critical systems for over 10 days soon file for bankruptcy. In another study, it was found that businesses that had lost catastrophic amounts of data and equipment lacking a continuity plan went out of business within 24 months at a rate of 90 percent.

Becoming a disaster recovery CPA

To become a disaster recovery CPA, there is no formal educational requirement, but business valuation, financial planning and personal financial specialist are just a few of the advanced certifications a disaster recovery CPA might hold. Experience on the job, along with some advanced certifications, is a strong asset; those who've been part of the recovery planning for businesses and families are best equipped to focus on this type of accounting work. The AICPA has a volunteer organization where CPAs can donate their time to helping in areas of the country impacted by disaster, such as when Hurricane Katrina struck, or the more recent Hurricane Sandy disaster. Volunteering allows CPAs to help communities while learning valuable on-the-job skills.

Megg Mueller is a journalist with almost two decades of experience. She has worked as a reporter and editor for the Reno Gazette-Journal and as an editor of health care and education manuals for Aspen Publishers, a subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer. She wrote a weekly column on the hotel industry during her tenure as assistant travel editor for USA TODAY.com. Mueller is the editor of a tourism-based website and also serves as a reporter for a weekly business newspaper.

Business Continuity Management • http://www.aicpa.org/interestareas/businessindustryandgovernment/resources/operationalfinanceaccounting/strategicperformancemanagement/pages/executive%20summary%20%E2%80%94%20business%20continuity%20management.aspx

Accountants and Auditors • Aug 31, 2012 • http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Accountants-and-auditors.htm

Q&A With Mitch Freedman: One CPA's Thoughts on the Development of Disaster Recovery • Oct 25, 2004 • http://www.aicpa.org/interestareas/personalfinancialplanning/resources/lifeevents/disasterfinancialissues/disasterfinancialrecovery/pages/qa%20with%20mitch%20freedman.aspx

Joel Jacobs and Stanley Weiner • The CPA's Role in Disaster Recovery Planning • http://www.nysscpa.org/cpajournal/1997/1197/features/f201197.htm

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