Forensic Accountant Jobs and Careers
One of the newer and fastest growing areas of accountancy is forensic accounting. Undoubtedly rendered more high profile by the presence of a forensic accountant in the TV show Law and Order, this area is now an area of specialisation in its own right. A number of well-reported fraud and embezzlement cases involving major corporations such as Enron have further drawn attention to the need for such an approach.
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Forensic accountancy has always taken place where fraud or tax evasion have taken place and the governmental or law enforcement authorities have been required to investigate financial histories through audits. For this reason, forensic accountants are also known as forensic auditors or investigative auditors. The title 'forensic' means that the findings are suitable for use in a court of law, so increasingly, this eventuality is the focus of the investigative work.
A relatively small area of the work relates to crime investigations and recovering the proceeds of criminal activity. Many large accounting firms have specialist forensic accounting departments, but their work is concerned as much with insurance claims, disputes, business valuation, contract breaches, losses and economic damages, etc. Disputes over marital separations also involve such financial investigation. Many accountants working in this area have a further specialisation in these criminal and civil areas.
The growing complexity of economic activities means that this area is likely to continue growing. This has led to the development of postgraduate degrees in the subject. In addition to regular accounting practices, this career area requires a strong understanding of auditing procedures, financial and accounting regulations and law, investigative techniques, evidence collection and litigation procedures.
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Areas of Forensic Accountancy
A forensic accountant may be consulted by a local or regional police force, a governmental department or legal institutions seeking financial evidence in relation to a criminal investigation. Tax offices may employ a forensic account directly in order to investigate tax cases. The accountant needs to examine historical financial data, often through accessing software accounting systems and undertaking auditing procedures. Where evidence of wrongdoing is identified, they need to collect the evidence and present it in a legally compliant manner, so that it can be presented in court if necessary. Preparing reports for law enforcement personnel is therefore a vital aspect of this work and the accountant may need to testify in court.
Disputes may arise between shareholders or business partners as to compensations and benefits received. The account must undertake a lengthy and detailed analysis of accounting records from a number of years, to ensure that these reflect the financial reality of that business's operations. They then quantify the payments made to shareholders and ascertain whether the benefits issued were compliant.
Insurance companies frequently need investigative accountants to check the details of personal injury claims or claims relating to road accidents. This can involve investigating the financial impact the accident or incident has made upon the individual claimant's life, in terms of future losses.
They also calculate the economic damages arising from medical errors or malpractice, or via wrongful dismissal. They can ascertain the losses caused to a business by the actions or activities of another entity.
The accountant must be familiar with legislation relating to all these areas, as well as possessing a strong understanding of the areas covered by fine print in insurance policies, whether they are representing the insurer or the plaintiff.
Business employees are sometimes taken to court on charges of embezzlement or fraud. The investigations that precede these cases often involve forensic accountants who are contracted to identify the existence, character and degree of fraud involved. They may even be involved in identifying the person responsible, or confirming their identity. This involves interviewing staff and reviewing record documentation. The accountant may undertake fund tracing, and asset identification and recovery. Other areas include forensic intelligence gathering and due diligence reviews.
There are many instances where forensic accountants with business experience are brought in to unravel accounting histories pertaining to disputes involving economic losses. These disputes can relate to contractual issues and losses arising from the breach of agreements such as a non-competition agreement. Patent infringements are also a point of dispute, as are trade marking issues. Other current or potential losses might relate to product liability and construction claims, or to expropriations by governmental agencies.
Some forensic accountants may be involved in dispute resolution, undertaking a role in the arbitration between individuals and/or businesses.
Family Law and Marital Disputes
Divorces and separations increasingly involve the assessment of personal and professional income of the parties involved. This may relate to the payment of alimonies or child maintenance. A forensic accountant may be employed by a legal representative to trace, locate and evaluate known and hidden assets such as property and businesses.
A forensic accountant may sometimes be involved in assessing the compliance of another accountant or accountancy department's work. This may be the case when legally set accounting principles or auditing standards have occurred, either deliberately or accidentally. The forensic accountant may also need to quantify the losses involved as a result of this misdemeanour.
Realities of the Forensic Accountant Job
The forensic accountant meets with the key players at the start of an audit or investigation, to gain an overview of the important facts and issues, as are currently known. This may involve communication with individuals, business representatives, people facing criminal charges, law enforcement personnel, governmental or regulatory agency personnel, etc. To ensure compliance, the accountant must ascertain that there is no conflict of interests between their own organisation and the parties involved, due to presence in earlier investigations or former professional relationships.
A preliminary investigation then takes place, that will lead to a subsequent action plan, which is more detailed. This plan sets out the investigation's objectives and required investigative methodology.
The accountant then locates economic information in the form of documents and reports, identifies assets and seeks to trace involvement of individuals or companies in the financial event that is being investigated. This information will comprise the evidence, so must be recorded appropriately.
Depending on the nature of the investigation, the financial analysis may involve scrutiny and analysis of the balance sheet, income statements, statement of retained earnings and statement of cash flows. They will also undertake asset tracing, utilising software to access financial transactions and events, summarising large amounts of transactions, evaluating the scale of economic losses and damages, and performing whatever financial analyses the investigation might require.
Once evidence is gathered, the accountant prepares the report. This will cover all the above stages, from the overview of the investigation, taking in its scope, approach, limitations, findings and views. The accountant will include diagrams or illustrations as appropriate. The accountant will liaise with involved parties at subsequent meetings when presenting findings and discussing their implications. If a criminal investigation is ensuing, then they may need to present their findings and express their viewpoint in court.
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Hours and Conditions
On the whole, hours are regular office hours. There will be exceptions when interviews need to take place with individuals who are unavailable during regular hours, or where an investigation is leading to a court case, when additional preparation may be needed in advance of the date. There is frequently a need to work in different locations, so a willingness to travel is essential.
Type of Person Required
Beyond the skills usually required for a career in accountancy, a forensic accountant should have an individual and well-developed sense of curiosity and persistence, with the urge to uncover facts and achieve conclusions that are not obvious at the start of an investigation. Creative thinking is an asset, as is the ability to maintain confidence and be discrete. Confidence helps with planning and undertaking an investigation where some parties may be resistant or even hostile. Sound professional judgement is essential, as well as the ability to organise one's own work. The ability to do this while retaining an open mind - outcomes should not be foregone conclusions - is an important balance to achieve. Finally, written and verbal communication skills are essential.
Forensic accounting is a specialist field. Many professionals in this area hold a degree in Accounting and the required certification for their respective country, but some people hold a degree in another subject and have subsequently trained as an accountant. All will have some years' experience of general accounting, so that they possess full knowledge of standard accounting principles.
Postgraduate training is also available and the number of qualifications in Forensic Accounting is now growing. Postgraduate diplomas provide comprehensive training, while Masters Degrees, which are also open to graduates of other subjects, offer a high level of specialist training. Seminars, conferences and short courses are also growing in number, particularly in countries where forensic or investigative accounting certification has been introduced.
Salaries and Prospects
This area of accounting is growing, due to high profile criminal cases and the increasing complexity and regulation of the economic marketplace in general. Salaries depend on experience, the exact area of work and the size of the employing organisation. Location is also an important factor, with pay in larger cities being higher. With greater experience and more in depth knowledge of a particular field of forensic accounting, salaries can rise dramatically.
In the US, forensic accountants typically earn US$30,000-60,000 rising to top levels of $150,000 or higher at advanced stages of their career. In the UK, positions start at around £40,000, rising as high as £150,000-200,000 for very senior positions. In Canada, an average salary is around CA$45,000, with top salaries well above CA$100,000.
Job Sites for Forensic Accountant Jobs
There are no specialist websites dedicated to Forensic Accountant Jobs. Vacancies can be found at accountant recruitment sites and general employment agency sites. These include: