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Concerns about CPA letters to third parties.

ACPA receives a request from a client to provide a letter to the client s mortgage broker, lender, adoption agency, or other third party. The request seems simple enough and harmless. All the client asks is that the CPA verify that this is her client, that she has been preparing the client's income tax returns, and that the client is employed by a particular employer or is self-employed. Is there any harm in the CPA signing the client's suggested letter or writing one of her own?

CPAs should remember that they prepare tax returns based on information provided by the taxpayer. It is very likely that they did not audit or otherwise verify the information used in the preparation of the returns. In fact, Circular 230 affirms that the CPA, in preparing a tax form, "may rely in good faith without verification upon information furnished by the client" but "may not ignore the implications of [other] information ... actually known" by the CPA, and he or she must make reasonable inquiries if the information provided "appears to be incorrect, inconsistent ... or incomplete" (Circular 230 [section] 10.34(d)).

Professional standards prescribe what CPAs can and cannot do in these circumstances, and there are professional risks to signing these "comfort" letters. The third parties requesting these letters are not the CPA's clients. Tax preparers therefore should not convey any information to anyone without their clients' written permission. This is a requirement under professional ethics standards, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Internal Revenue Code, and other federal and state privacy statutes and regulations.

Purpose of Comfort Letters

There are various reasons why a client may request a comfort letter. Mortgage brokers may be collecting information needed for loan approval, or other third parties may be trying to verify that clients applying for a particular service are who they say they are and have the resources and ability to pay for the service or items involved. (As used in this discussion, the term "comfort letter" does not refer to the letter a CPA issues in relation to a bond or stock offering.)

Verification of Source Income

Lenders do not normally need a comfort letter from a CPA unless there is some difficulty in qualifying the borrower using conventional information sources. This is usually the case in "stated income" loans, which qualify the borrower using the income the borrower states on the application form. This is not necessarily income the borrower can document.

This type of loan is designed for prospective borrowers who have the ability to make loan payments but do not meet traditional underwriting standards, which generally require borrowers to present W-2s or tax returns for the prior two years. Self-employed borrowers or those in professions with cyclical income may have difficulty meeting these traditional requirements. Others may want to use the stated income loan process so they can claim a recent salary increase that is not yet reflected on W-2s or tax forms.

On a stated income loan, lenders agree not to attempt to verify the borrower's stated income, but they will try to verify its source. They also use reasonableness tests in comparing the borrower's income from the stated profession with industry income averages. Applicants may be truthful about the total income amount because it can be verified by looking at income tax forms, but they may sometimes embellish the income source in order to make the loan more likely to be approved.

Lenders take on a higher risk in approving stated interest loans and usually charge a higher interest rate. In the process of reviewing the application and approving the loan, they might ask for a comfort letter from the borrower's CPA. Most lenders will simply ask the CPA to write a letter indicating that the prospective borrower is self-employed or is employed in a certain profession. Others may attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for due diligence onto the borrower's CPA and provide a script of what they want the letter to say (see Exhibit 1). This letter provides third-party verification of details in the application and could transfer some of the potential liability to the CPA in the event of default on the loan; it is not recommended that CPAs sign such a letter.

Cautions for CPAs

There are a few issues with this type of letter that should concern CPAs. First, the proposed letter asks the CPA to attest, when the CPA has not specifically been engaged for that purpose. The report would be issued to a third party that has not contracted with the preparer for that specific purpose.

According to Auditing Standards Board Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements No. 10, Attest Engagements, an attestation engagement is called for if the client wants a written report providing assurance about a specific subject. Of course, performing an attestation engagement is not prohibited in the case of a lender's comfort letter request, but CPAs must follow the procedures required in an attestation engagement. The client will likely not want to incur the expense of a formal attestation engagement.
Exhibit 1: Example of lender's preferred wording for a CPA comfort
letter

My clients, Mr. and Mrs. Tax Client, have asked me to write you
concerning their [loan, adoption, etc.] application with your
company. They have asked me to provide you with the following
information.

  I am John Accountant, CPA, state license #12345. I have been
preparing the federal and state income tax forms for the Clients
for the last two years. The Clients ore self-employed in the field
of [occupation]. The Clients' income has exceeded SX for each of
the past two years, and the income from their self-employment
business has provided for the needs of the Client family for those
two years. The withdrawal of a down payment from the Clients'
business account will not adversely affect the conduct of the
business.

  Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or
concerns about this matter.


It is also important to know what is not permitted under the standards. AT Section 9101, Attest Engagements: Attest Engagements Interpretations of Section 101, No. 2, [paragraph] 25 states that practitioners should not provide any form of assurance that an entity is not insolvent or would not be rendered insolvent upon a proposed condition, or that an entity has the ability to pay debts as they mature. A lender may want the CPA to make an assurance that the applicant's withdrawal of the funds for a down payment or other purposes would not put a financial strain on the applicant's self-employment business. Any representation to that effect could be construed to be a comment on solvency and would thus be prohibited under the standards.

The types of services permitted in a CPA attest report include an audit, a review, or a compilation of the applicant's personal financial statements. The CPA may also report on pro forma financial information or perform an agreed-upon procedures report, as long as those procedures do not provide any assurance on matters of solvency. The important thing to consider is that this type of engagement requires many procedural steps, which take time and result in significant fees to the client.

Alternatives to Comfort Letters

If the CPA takes the time to explain to the lender what is involved in presenting a comfort letter similar to the one in Exhibit 1, in light of CPA professional standards and the related cost to the applicant of issuing any attestation letter, the lender may be convinced to withdraw its request.

Another option is to offer to send a copy (with the client's written authorization) of the client's tax forms directly to the lender with a simple cover page stating, "Please find attached the tax forms I prepared for the Client family for the past two years." Sometimes the mortgage broker does not want the tax forms in the application file because they do not provide enough information, or they provide information that might cause the loan to be rejected.

Some brokers can be very insistent on getting a letter from the CPA and may even encourage the client to switch to a different CPA who will issue such a letter. In terms of minimizing risk, it is best to avoid confirming any information to a third party. However, refusing to do so may offend your good client.

Exhibit 2 on p. 393 is a sample letter that may satisfy the lender's file requirements. It provides the lender with a CPA letter but basically makes no assurances and should limit the CPA's liability in the circumstance. The letter merely says that the CPA prepared the tax forms and that the lender should not construe the letter to be an audited CPA representation. In most cases, this should suffice. But CPAs should consult with their errors and omissions insurance company about the content of any such letter that they will be using in their practice.

CPAs may be tempted to just send off a quick letter to the lender "confirming" that the client is self-employed, or retired, or earning a living from the activities addressed on the tax return. But they should be careful about this. Do they really know everything that is occurring with that client? Does he or she have other activities on the side that the CPA is not aware of and that conflict with the information on the tax forms? When considering all the possibilities, it is wiser to adhere to the comments in Exhibit 2. CPAs are certain about what they put on tax forms. Saying anything else in the letter advances the tax engagement to a new level.

Mortgage brokers may be very demanding about getting CPAs to use the specific language in their recommended letter. They may try to make the CPA the "villain" in the loan approval process, especially when the loan is difficult to approve. The most prudent course of action would be for CPAs to limit their response as outlined above, regardless of pressure from lenders or clients.
Exhibit 2: Suggested wording for a CPA comfort letter

I am writing to you in response to a written request of my tax
clients, Mr. and Mrs. Tax Client.

  This letter confirms to you that I prepared the federal tax forms
for 200X and 200Y for the Client family. These forms included
Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business. If the Clients authorize
me to do so, I can send you a copy of these tax forms so that you
can perform your due diligence. If you are making such a request,
please send my firm an authorization form signed by the Clients
authorizing me to release this information to you.

  I prepared the tax forms from information that was provided to me
by the Clients. As is normal in this type of professional service
by my office, I was not hired to perform and did not perform audit
or other types of verification of the information provided to me.
Thus, I cannot make any professional representation or assurance of
the accuracy of this information or the sufficiency of the tax form
for your credit decision-making purposes.

  I prepared the Client tax forms in accordance with the applicable
IRS rules and regulations solely for filing with the IRS. The tax
forms thus do not represent any assessment on my part as to the
creditworthiness of the Clients. The tax forms do not include any
statement of financial position or income and expense for these
years in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles
(GAAP) and should not be construed to do so. I can provide a GAAP
report, but it will require additional time and resources to
prepare and will result in a significant fee to the Clients. The
standards of my profession prohibit me from making assurances
relating to solvency; however, I am permitted to present
prospective or pro forma financial information. These too would
require additional work and fees to the Clients.

  As you know, a credit-granting decision should be based on a
lender's exercise of due diligence in considering many factors.
Your use of this letter from me, and the tax forms, in the exercise
of your due diligence is solely a matter of your responsibility and
judgment. This letter is not intended to establish a client
relationship with you but is a response to a request from my
clients, the Clients.

  This letter gives you all the information I can provide to you
according to my professional standards. If you need additional
information relating specifically to the tax forms prepared by me,
please let me know.


Co-Editors:

Steven F. Holub, CPA

Cherry, Bekaert & Holland, LLP

Tampa, FL

Jane T. Rubin, CPA

Educational Strategies Co.

St. Louis, MO

Author:

Barton Black, CPA

Sole Practitioner

Allen, TX

Mr. Holub is a former chair of the AICPA Tax Division's Tax Practice Management Committee. Ms. Rubin is the chair of the AICPA Tax Division's Tax Practice Improvement Committee, and Mr. Black is a member of that committee. For more information about this column, contact Mr. Black at bb@7cpatax.com.
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Title Annotation:certified public accountants
Author:Holub, Steven F.; Rubin, Jane T.; Black, Barton
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:2177
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