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Code of professional conduct for a Certified Public Accountant acting as navigator

originally published 3/12/2012

Editorial note 11/17/2014: In July 2014 the AICPA Statement of Standards in Personal Financial Planning Services became the rule guiding most CPA's advisory services. This standard includes insurance planning but does not include health care planning. The primary impact on OnlineNaviator is the requirement to document the scope and limitations of the service.

Editorial note 1/3/2013: After the publication of this article Freedom Benefits announced that it would not act as navigator in any federal, state or commercial health insurance exchange. At this time there is no expectation that any adviser operating through OnlineNavigator.org will be acting in the capacity as a navigator as defined under PPACA.

In anticipation that the navigator may be a Certified Public Accountant and that the federal government's rules for the interaction of navigators with CPAs are not clear at his time, this guidance will be used by OnlineNavigator as a code of conduct. The selected statements below the explanation from the AICPA are most likely to directly affect relationships between a client and a navigator when the navigator is a Certified Public Accountant.

The rules are designed to reduce the risk of potential conflict of interest and usually relevant under four common scenarios:

1) The navigator prepares statements that may be used by an insurance company or other third party. For example, an insurance company asks for a wage tax return as part of an insurance application. The purpose of the rule is to ensure that the third party is aware of any potential conflict of interest.

2) The navigator receives compensation from the federal government, state government or an insurance exchange. For example, the navigator handles an insurance enrollment and is paid a fee by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The intent is to provide disclosure about the compensation.

3) The navigator uses a third party service to help with work. For example, an online insurance quote service is used to compare health plan pricing. The intent is to protect private information.

4) The navigator participates with third parties in compiling information that does not identify the client. For example, the navigator publishes "case studies" as educational material without identifying the client. The intent is to ensure that the client gives permission to disclose any non-public information.

Following is guidance from the AICPA:


ET Section 302 - Contingent Fees

.01 Rule 302—Contingent fees.

A member in public practice shall not

  1. Perform for a contingent fee any professional services for, or receive such a fee from a client for whom the member or the member's firm performs,
    1. an audit or review of a financial statement; or
    2. a compilation of a financial statement when the member expects, or reasonably might expect, that a third party will use the financial statement and the member's compilation report does not disclose a lack of independence; or
    3. an examination of prospective financial information;

      or
  1. Prepare an original or amended tax return or claim for a tax refund for a contingent fee for any client.

The prohibition in (1) above applies during the period in which the member or the member's firm is engaged to perform any of the services listed above and the period covered by any historical financial statements involved in any such listed services.

Except as stated in the next sentence, a contingent fee is a fee established for the performance of any service pursuant to an arrangement in which no fee will be charged unless a specified finding or result is attained, or in which the amount of the fee is otherwise dependent upon the finding or result of such service. Solely for purposes of this rule, fees are not regarded as being contingent if fixed by courts or other public authorities, or, in tax matters, if determined based on the results of judicial proceedings or the findings of governmental agencies.

A member's fees may vary depending, for example, on the complexity of services rendered.

[As adopted May 20, 1991.]

Interpretation under Rule 302

—Contingent Fees

.02 302-1—Contingent fees in tax matters.

This interpretation defines certain terms in rule 302 [ ET section 302.01] and provides examples of the application of the rule. When practicing before the IRS or other taxing authorities, members should ensure compliance with any requirements that are more restrictive.

Definition of Terms
  1. Preparation of an original or amended tax return or claim for tax refund includes giving advice on events which have occurred at the time the advice is given if such advice is directly relevant to determining the existence, character, or amount of a schedule, entry, or other portion of a return or claim for refund.
  2. A fee is considered determined based on the findings of governmental agencies if the member can demonstrate a reasonable expectation, at the time of a fee arrangement, of substantive consideration by an agency with respect to the member's client. Such an expectation is deemed not reasonable in the case of preparation of original tax returns.
Examples

The following are examples, not all-inclusive, of circumstances where a contingent fee would be permitted:

  1. Representing a client in an examination by a revenue agent of the client's federal or state income tax return.
  2. Filing an amended federal or state income tax return claiming a tax refund based on a tax issue that is either the subject of a test case (involving a different taxpayer) or with respect to which the taxing authority is developing a position.
  3. Filing an amended federal or state income tax return (or refund claim) claiming a tax refund in an amount greater than the threshold for review by the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation ($1 million at March 1991) or state taxing authority.
  4. Requesting a refund of either overpayments of interest or penalties charged to a client's account or deposits of taxes improperly accounted for by the federal or state taxing authority in circumstances where the taxing authority has established procedures for the substantive review of such refund requests.
  5. Requesting, by means of "protest" or similar document, consideration by the state or local taxing authority of a reduction in the "assessed value" of property under an established taxing authority review process for hearing all taxpayer arguments relating to assessed value.
  6. Representing a client in connection with obtaining a private letter ruling or influencing the drafting of a regulation or statute.

The following is an example of a circumstance where a contingent fee would not be permitted:

  1. Preparing an amended federal or state income tax return for a client claiming a refund of taxes because a deduction was inadvertently omitted from the return originally filed. There is no question as to the propriety of the deduction; rather the claim is filed to correct an omission.

[Revised effective May 31, 2011]

ET Section 391 - Ethics Rulings on Responsibilities to Clients

1. Use of a Third-Party Service Provider to Provide Professional Services to Clients or Administrative Support Services to the Member

.001 Question—A member in public practice uses an entity that the member, individually or collectively with his or her firm or with members of his or her firm, does not control (as defined by in Financial Accounting Standards Board Accounting Standards Codification 810, Consolidation)or an individual not employed by the member (a “third-party service provider”) to assist the member in providing professional services (for example, bookkeeping, tax return preparation, consulting, or attest services, including related clerical and data entry functions) to clients or for providing administrative support services to the member (for example, record storage, software application hosting, or authorized e-file tax transmittal services). Does Rule 301, Confidential Client Information [ET section 301.01], require the member to obtain the client’s consent before disclosing confidential client information to the third-party service provider?

.002 Answer—No. Rule 301 [ET section 301.01] is not intended to prohibit a member in public practice from disclosing confidential client information to a third-party service provider used by the member for purposes of providing professional services to clients or for administrative support purposes. However, before using such a service provider, the member should enter into a contractual agreement with the third-party service provider to maintain the confidentiality of the information and be reasonably assured that the third-party service provider has appropriate procedures in place to prevent the unauthorized release of confidential information to others. The nature and extent of procedures necessary to obtain reasonable assurance depends on the facts and circumstances, including the extent of publicly available information on the third-party service provider’s controls and procedures to safeguard confidential client information.

In the event the member does not enter into a confidentiality agreement with a third-party service provider, specific client consent should be obtained before the member discloses confidential client information to the third-party service provider.

See ethics ruling No. 112 [ET section 191.224–.225] under Rule 102, Integrity and Objectivity [ET section 102.01], and ethics ruling No. 12 [ET section 291.023–.024] under Rule 201, General Standards [ET section 201.01], and Rule 202, Compliance With Standards [ET section 202.01], for additional responsibilities of the member when using a third-party service provider.

[Revised, effective July 1, 2005, except for professional services performed pursuant to agreements in existence on June 30, 2005 that are completed by December 31, 2005, by the Professional Ethics Executive Committee. Revised effective May 31, 2011]

2. Disclosure of Client Information to Third Parties

.003 Question—A member has received a request from a third party (for example, a trade association, member of academia, or surveying or benchmarking organization) to disclose client information or intends to use such information for the member's own purposes (for example, publication of benchmarking data or studies) in a manner that may result in the client's information being disclosed to others without the client being specifically identified. May the member comply with such a request or use client information for such purposes without violating Rule 301 [sec. 301 par.01]?

.004 Answer—A member would be in violation of Rule 301 [sec. 301 par.01] if the information is considered to be confidential client information, unless the member has the clients' specific consent, preferably in writing, for the disclosure or use of such information. The disclosure or use of the information that is available to the public is not subject to Rule 301 [sec. 301 par.01]. The member should be cautious in the disclosure or use of the information so as not to disclose client information that may go beyond what is available to the public or that the client has agreed may be disclosed.

Accordingly, before disclosing confidential client information to a third party or using such information for the member's own purposes when the use of such information results in disclosure of confidential client information to others, the member should obtain the client's specific consent, preferably in writing, about the nature of the information that may be disclosed, the type of third party to whom it may be disclosed, and its intended use.

A member is not prohibited from marketing his or her services or advising a third party, such as a current or prospective client, of information based on his or her expertise or knowledge obtained from prior experiences with clients (for example, the nature of services provided to other clients or common practices within a client's industry). However, in cases when such information may be identifiable to one or more clients, specific consent, preferably in writing, would be required from such client(s). Prior to disclosing confidential client information to a third party, the member should consider whether a contractual agreement with the third party to maintain the confidentiality, or limit the use, of the information is necessary.

In addition, the member should consider whether federal, state, or local statutes, rules, or regulations concerning confidentiality of client information may be more restrictive than the requirements contained in this ethics ruling.

See Ethics Ruling No. 12 of section 291 [sec. 291 par. .023-.024] and Ethics Ruling No. 1, "Use of a Third-Party Service Provider to Provide Professional Services to Clients or Administrative Support Services to the Member," of this section [sec. 391 par. .001-.002] for guidance when disclosing confidential client information to a third party used to assist the member in providing professional services to clients that will not result in disclosure to others.

[Revised August 2011, effective November 30, 2011]

ET Section 391 - Ethics Rulings on Responsibilities to Clients

24 Investment Advisory Services

.047 QuestionA member or member’s firm (“member”) provides investment advisory services for an attest client for a fee based on a percentage of the client’s investment portfolio. Would the member be considered to be in violation of rule 302, Contingent Fees [ET section 302.01]?

.048 Answer—Yes. However, the fee would not be contingent upon portfolio performance and, therefore, would not be in violation of rule 302 [ET section 302.01] if all of the following conditions are met:

1 The fee is determined as a specified percentage of the client’s investment portfolio.

2 The dollar amount of the portfolio on which the fee is based is determined at the beginning of each quarterly period (or longer period of time as may be agreed upon) and is adjusted only for additions or withdrawals made by the client during the period.

3 The fee arrangement is not renewed with the client more frequently than on a quarterly basis.

When performing such services, the member should also consider Rule 101, Independence [ET section 101.01], especially interpretation 101-3 [ET section 101.05].

25 Commission and Contingent Fee Arrangements With Nonattest Client

.049 Question—A member or member’s firm (member) provides for a contingent fee investment advisory services, or refers for a commission products or services of a nonclient or a nonattest client, to the owners, officers, or employees of an attest client or to a nonattest client employee benefit plan sponsored by an attest client. Would the member be considered to be in violation of either rule 302 [ET section 302.01] or rule 503 [ET section 503.01]?

.050 AnswerNo. The member would not be in violation of either rule 302 [ET section 302.01] or rule 503 [ET section 503.01] provided that, with respect to rule 503 [ET section 503.01], the member discloses the commission to the owners, officers, or employees or to the employee benefit plan. The member should also consider the applicability of interpretation 102-2, Conflicts of Interest [ET section 102.03], and his or her professional responsibility to clients under Rule 301, Confidential Client Information [ET section 301.01].