REG CPA Exam: Understanding the Duties and Liabilities of Agents and Principals

Understanding the Duties and Liabilities of Agents and Principals

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The Importance of Understanding the Duties and Liabilities of Agents and Principals for the REG CPA Exam

Understanding the duties and liabilities of agents and principals is a fundamental aspect of the REG CPA exam. This topic not only tests your knowledge of agency law but also your ability to apply legal principles to various business scenarios. Mastery of this area is essential because it forms the basis for many business transactions and legal relationships encountered in practice. The knowledge gained here ensures that you can competently advise on and manage these relationships, safeguarding the interests of your clients or organization.

The Principal-Agent Relationship in Business and Legal Contexts

The principal-agent relationship is a cornerstone of business operations and legal practice. It involves two parties: the principal, who authorizes another party to act on their behalf, and the agent, who agrees to act in that capacity. This relationship is established through a mutual agreement, either explicitly stated in a contract or implied through actions and circumstances.

In business, agents often include employees, brokers, and attorneys who are given the authority to perform tasks, make decisions, and enter into contracts for their principals. The scope of this authority can vary widely, ranging from specific tasks to broad managerial duties.

Legally, the principal-agent relationship is governed by a combination of contract law, tort law, and fiduciary principles. Agents owe a series of duties to their principals, including loyalty, obedience, care, accounting, and disclosure. In turn, principals have obligations to compensate, reimburse, cooperate with, and ensure safe working conditions for their agents.

Understanding these duties and liabilities is crucial because it determines how responsibilities are allocated and what legal recourses are available when disputes arise. This knowledge not only aids in the successful completion of the REG CPA exam but also equips future CPAs with the tools necessary to navigate and manage complex agency relationships in their professional careers.

Defining Agents and Principals

Definition of an Agent

An agent is an individual or entity authorized to act on behalf of another person or entity, known as the principal, in conducting business transactions or legal matters. Agents are empowered to make decisions, enter into contracts, and perform various duties within the scope of their authority. The role of an agent is pivotal in business operations as they facilitate actions and decisions that the principal cannot undertake personally.

Agents can take on various forms, including employees, brokers, attorneys, and independent contractors. Regardless of their specific roles, all agents share the common function of acting in the principal’s interest, following the principal’s instructions, and exercising the authority granted to them.

Definition of a Principal

A principal is an individual or entity that authorizes another party, the agent, to act on their behalf. The principal is the source of the agent’s authority and is ultimately responsible for the actions taken by the agent within the scope of that authority. Principals can be business owners, corporate entities, or individuals seeking representation in various transactions or legal matters.

Principals delegate authority to agents to streamline operations, leverage specialized expertise, or manage extensive business activities. The principal remains accountable for the agent’s actions as long as the agent acts within the bounds of their given authority.

Explanation of How an Agency Relationship is Formed

An agency relationship is formed through a mutual agreement between the principal and the agent. This agreement can be established in several ways:

  1. Express Agreement: This is the most straightforward method, where the principal and agent explicitly agree, either orally or in writing, to enter into an agency relationship. The terms of the agency, including the scope of authority and duties, are clearly outlined in this agreement.
  2. Implied Agreement: An agency relationship can also be formed through the actions and conduct of the parties involved. If a principal’s behavior indicates that they have given authority to an agent, and the agent accepts by acting on that authority, an implied agency relationship is established. This typically occurs when the circumstances demonstrate an intention to create an agency relationship, even if not explicitly stated.
  3. Apparent Authority: Sometimes, an agency relationship is formed based on the principal’s representations to a third party, leading the third party to believe that an agent has authority to act on the principal’s behalf. If the third party reasonably relies on this belief, the principal may be bound by the agent’s actions, even if the agent did not have actual authority. This concept is known as apparent authority or ostensible agency.
  4. Ratification: An agency relationship can also be created after the fact, through ratification. If an individual acts on behalf of another without authority, the principal can later ratify or approve those actions, thereby retroactively establishing an agency relationship. Ratification can occur through explicit approval or through actions that imply acceptance of the agent’s conduct.

Understanding the formation of an agency relationship is crucial for identifying the rights and obligations of both the agent and the principal. This knowledge is fundamental for the REG CPA exam, as it lays the groundwork for analyzing and applying agency law principles in various scenarios.

Types of Agents

General Agents

A general agent is an individual authorized to conduct a wide range of activities on behalf of the principal. This type of agent has broad authority to act in various matters related to a particular area or business. For instance, a manager in a retail store may be a general agent with the authority to handle day-to-day operations, make purchasing decisions, and hire or fire employees.

General agents are typically granted ongoing authority and are often employed in positions that require continuous decision-making and management. Their actions are usually within the scope of the authority provided by the principal, and they are expected to carry out their duties in the principal’s best interest.

Special Agents

Special agents have a more limited scope of authority compared to general agents. They are authorized to perform specific tasks or handle particular transactions on behalf of the principal. For example, a real estate agent hired to sell a property is considered a special agent. Their authority is restricted to activities directly related to the sale of that property.

Special agents do not have the broad, ongoing authority of general agents and must adhere strictly to the specific duties assigned to them. Once the particular task or transaction is completed, the special agent’s authority typically terminates.


Sub-agents are agents appointed by another agent (the original agent) to assist in performing tasks on behalf of the principal. The original agent, often referred to as the primary agent, must have the principal’s authorization to delegate their duties to a sub-agent.

The sub-agent owes duties to both the primary agent and the principal. For example, an attorney (primary agent) may hire a paralegal (sub-agent) to help with legal research and document preparation. The paralegal, as a sub-agent, must act in the best interests of both the attorney and the client (principal).

Independent Contractors

Independent contractors are agents who provide services to the principal but maintain a high degree of independence and control over how they perform their work. Unlike employees, independent contractors are not subject to the principal’s direct control and supervision regarding the methods used to accomplish their tasks.

For instance, a company might hire an independent contractor to develop a marketing campaign. While the contractor is responsible for delivering the final product, they have the autonomy to decide how to achieve that outcome. Independent contractors are often hired for their expertise in a specific area and are typically responsible for their own taxes and benefits.

Employee Agents

Employee agents are individuals employed by the principal to perform a variety of tasks under the principal’s control and direction. These agents are integral to the principal’s business operations and are subject to the principal’s detailed instructions regarding how to perform their duties.

For example, a sales representative working for a company is an employee agent. They are expected to follow company policies, meet sales targets, and report to their supervisors. Employee agents typically have a more structured and regulated relationship with the principal compared to independent contractors.

Understanding the different types of agents is essential for recognizing the varying degrees of authority and responsibility that agents have in their roles. This knowledge helps in identifying the appropriate legal principles applicable to each type of agency relationship, which is crucial for success on the REG CPA exam.

Duties of Agents to Principals

Duty of Loyalty

The duty of loyalty is a fundamental obligation that requires agents to act solely in the best interest of their principals. Agents must avoid conflicts of interest and refrain from engaging in activities that could benefit them personally at the expense of the principal. This duty encompasses several specific responsibilities, such as avoiding self-dealing, maintaining confidentiality, and not competing with the principal.

Example: An agent managing a portfolio for an investor must not purchase investments for their personal benefit if those opportunities should rightfully belong to the investor.

Duty of Obedience

Agents are obligated to follow all lawful and reasonable instructions provided by the principal. The duty of obedience requires agents to act within the scope of their authority and adhere to the directives given by the principal. This duty ensures that the agent’s actions align with the principal’s objectives and legal boundaries.

Example: If a principal instructs a real estate agent to only consider offers above a certain price for a property, the agent must comply with this directive and not entertain lower offers.

Duty of Care

The duty of care mandates that agents perform their duties with the same level of competence and diligence that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in similar circumstances. Agents must use their skills and expertise to act in the principal’s best interest, ensuring that their actions meet the standards expected in their professional capacity.

Example: A financial advisor must carefully analyze market conditions and investment options to make informed recommendations that align with the client’s financial goals and risk tolerance.

Duty of Accounting

Agents have a duty to account for all property, funds, and transactions handled on behalf of the principal. This includes keeping accurate records, providing regular reports, and ensuring that the principal can review and verify all financial activities. The duty of accounting helps maintain transparency and trust in the principal-agent relationship.

Example: A property manager collecting rent on behalf of a landlord must keep detailed records of all payments received and expenses incurred, providing the landlord with periodic financial statements.

Duty of Disclosure

The duty of disclosure requires agents to inform principals of all relevant information that could affect the principal’s interests. This includes disclosing potential conflicts of interest, significant risks, and any material facts that the principal would need to make informed decisions. Full and timely disclosure is crucial for maintaining the principal’s trust and enabling sound decision-making.

Example: A lawyer representing a client in a business transaction must disclose any personal relationships with the opposing party that could influence their judgment or create a conflict of interest.

Examples and Case Studies to Illustrate Each Duty

Duty of Loyalty Case Study:
An investment advisor discovers a lucrative opportunity that could benefit both their personal portfolio and their client’s portfolio. Choosing to prioritize the client’s interest, the advisor refrains from investing personally and allocates the opportunity exclusively to the client. This action upholds the duty of loyalty by avoiding a conflict of interest.

Duty of Obedience Case Study:
A sales agent receives explicit instructions from their employer to limit sales of a particular product to a specific region due to regulatory restrictions. Despite potential demand in other regions, the agent adheres strictly to the instructions, ensuring compliance with the principal’s directives and legal requirements.

Duty of Care Case Study:
An accountant hired to prepare financial statements for a small business conducts thorough reviews, cross-checks data, and adheres to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). The accountant’s meticulous approach exemplifies the duty of care, providing the principal with accurate and reliable financial information.

Duty of Accounting Case Study:
A nonprofit organization’s treasurer maintains detailed records of all donations received and expenditures made. Regular financial reports are provided to the board of directors, ensuring transparency and accountability in the management of the organization’s funds, fulfilling the duty of accounting.

Duty of Disclosure Case Study:
A real estate agent learns that a property being considered by a client is located in a flood-prone area. The agent promptly discloses this critical information to the client, enabling the client to make an informed decision about the purchase, thereby adhering to the duty of disclosure.

These duties form the backbone of the principal-agent relationship, ensuring that agents act ethically and in the best interest of their principals. Understanding these duties and their practical applications is essential for success on the REG CPA exam and for effective professional practice.

Duties of Principals to Agents

Duty to Compensate

The duty to compensate obligates the principal to pay the agent for services rendered. This compensation is usually agreed upon in the agency contract and can be a salary, commission, fee, or other forms of payment. Timely and fair compensation ensures that the agent is motivated to perform their duties effectively and in the principal’s best interest.

Example: A company hires a marketing consultant to develop a new advertising campaign. The consultant completes the project, and the company pays the agreed-upon fee promptly, fulfilling its duty to compensate.

Duty to Reimburse and Indemnify

Principals must reimburse agents for expenses incurred while performing their duties. Additionally, principals have a duty to indemnify agents for any losses or liabilities incurred as a result of actions taken on behalf of the principal, provided those actions were within the scope of the agent’s authority and not due to the agent’s own misconduct or negligence.

Example: A sales agent travels to meet potential clients on behalf of the principal and incurs travel and lodging expenses. The principal reimburses the agent for these expenses, adhering to the duty to reimburse. If the agent is sued for actions taken within their authority, the principal would indemnify the agent for legal costs and any resulting liabilities.

Duty to Cooperate

The duty to cooperate requires the principal to provide the necessary support and assistance to enable the agent to perform their duties effectively. This includes providing access to relevant information, resources, and tools required for the agent to carry out their tasks. A lack of cooperation from the principal can hinder the agent’s performance and lead to suboptimal results.

Example: An employer provides an employee with access to necessary software and training to perform their job efficiently. By doing so, the employer fulfills the duty to cooperate, ensuring the employee can meet their responsibilities effectively.

Duty to Provide Safe Working Conditions

Principals are responsible for ensuring that the working environment provided to agents is safe and free from hazards. This duty encompasses complying with occupational safety and health regulations, providing necessary safety equipment, and addressing any potential risks that could harm the agent. Providing a safe workplace is essential for protecting the agent’s well-being and ensuring compliance with legal standards.

Example: A construction company supplies workers with protective gear and conducts regular safety inspections on-site. By maintaining a safe working environment, the company upholds its duty to provide safe working conditions for its employees.

Examples and Case Studies to Illustrate Each Duty

Duty to Compensate Case Study:
A freelance graphic designer is hired to create a company logo. Upon completion of the project, the company promptly pays the designer the agreed-upon fee. This timely payment demonstrates the principal’s adherence to the duty to compensate, fostering a positive working relationship.

Duty to Reimburse and Indemnify Case Study:
A legal firm sends an associate attorney to represent a client in another state. The attorney incurs travel expenses and legal fees while defending the client. The firm reimburses the attorney for travel costs and indemnifies them for any legal liabilities incurred during the case, fulfilling its duties of reimbursement and indemnification.

Duty to Cooperate Case Study:
A real estate firm hires an agent to manage property sales. The firm provides the agent with access to the company’s client database, marketing materials, and administrative support. This cooperation ensures the agent can perform their duties efficiently, illustrating the principal’s duty to cooperate.

Duty to Provide Safe Working Conditions Case Study:
A manufacturing company implements comprehensive safety protocols, including regular equipment maintenance and employee safety training. By creating a safe work environment, the company meets its duty to provide safe working conditions, protecting employees from potential hazards.

Understanding the duties of principals to agents is crucial for maintaining a balanced and effective principal-agent relationship. These duties ensure that agents are adequately supported and protected while performing their roles, which is vital for achieving mutual success. Mastery of these concepts is essential for the REG CPA exam and for professional practice in any business setting.

Liabilities of Agents

Contractual Liability

Liability When Acting Within the Scope of Authority

When agents act within the scope of their authority, their actions and decisions are legally binding on the principal. In such cases, the principal is typically responsible for fulfilling the contractual obligations, and the agent is not personally liable. However, agents must ensure that they clearly disclose their agency status and identify the principal in their dealings to avoid personal liability.

Example: A purchasing agent signs a contract with a supplier on behalf of the company they represent. As long as the agent is acting within the scope of their authority, the company is bound by the contract, and the agent is not personally liable for the contractual obligations.

Liability When Acting Outside the Scope of Authority

If an agent acts outside the scope of their authority, they may be held personally liable for the resulting contractual obligations. When an agent exceeds their authority or misrepresents their authority, the principal is not bound by the contract, and the agent may face personal liability for any damages incurred by the third party.

Example: An employee at a car dealership agrees to sell a vehicle at a price significantly lower than the authorized minimum without the principal’s consent. If the principal does not ratify this unauthorized action, the agent may be personally liable for any losses incurred by the dealership.

Tort Liability

Liability for Negligence

Agents can be held personally liable for negligent acts that cause harm to third parties. Negligence occurs when an agent fails to exercise reasonable care in performing their duties, resulting in injury or damage. Principals may also be held vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their agents if the acts were committed within the scope of employment.

Example: A delivery driver employed by a courier company negligently causes a traffic accident while on duty. Both the driver (agent) and the courier company (principal) could be held liable for damages resulting from the accident.

Liability for Intentional Torts

Agents are personally liable for intentional torts, such as fraud, assault, or defamation, committed while performing their duties. Even if the principal did not authorize or condone the intentional tort, the agent remains personally responsible for their actions.

Example: A salesperson deliberately provides false information about a product to a customer, leading to a fraudulent transaction. The salesperson (agent) can be held personally liable for fraud, regardless of whether the principal was aware of or approved the deceitful behavior.

Criminal Liability

Circumstances Under Which an Agent Can Be Held Criminally Liable

Agents can be held criminally liable for illegal acts committed during their duties, especially if they intentionally engaged in criminal behavior. Criminal liability can arise from actions such as embezzlement, bribery, or insider trading. In some cases, both the agent and the principal can face criminal charges if the principal was complicit in or benefited from the illegal acts.

Example: A financial advisor engages in insider trading by using confidential information obtained through their position to make profitable stock trades. The advisor (agent) can be criminally prosecuted for violating securities laws. If the principal was aware of and encouraged the illegal trading, they could also face criminal charges.

Understanding the various liabilities that agents may face is essential for navigating the legal landscape of agency relationships. Agents must be aware of the potential consequences of their actions and ensure they operate within the scope of their authority, exercise due care, and avoid engaging in illegal activities. This knowledge is crucial for success on the REG CPA exam and for maintaining ethical and legal standards in professional practice.

Termination of the Agency Relationship

Ways to Terminate an Agency Relationship

By Act of the Parties

An agency relationship can be terminated through mutual agreement or unilateral action by either the principal or the agent. The termination methods include:

  • Mutual Agreement: Both the principal and the agent agree to end the agency relationship. This can be formalized in writing or verbally.
    Example: A company and its marketing consultant mutually agree to end their contract after the completion of a specific project.
  • Revocation by the Principal: The principal can revoke the agent’s authority at any time. However, if the revocation breaches the terms of a contract, the principal may be liable for damages.
    Example: An employer terminates the employment of an agent due to poor performance, effectively ending the agency relationship.
  • Renunciation by the Agent: The agent can resign or renounce their authority, thereby terminating the agency relationship. Similar to revocation, if the renunciation breaches a contract, the agent may be liable for damages.
    Example: A real estate agent decides to quit their job, thereby renouncing their authority to act on behalf of the real estate firm.

By Operation of Law

Certain events can automatically terminate an agency relationship by operation of law, including:

  • Completion of the Objective: The agency relationship ends when the specific purpose for which it was created is fulfilled.
    Example: A lawyer’s agency relationship with a client terminates once the legal case is resolved.
  • Expiration of Time: If the agency relationship is established for a specific period, it terminates when that period expires.
    Example: A seasonal employee’s contract ends at the conclusion of the busy season, terminating the agency relationship.
  • Death or Incapacity: The death or incapacity of either the principal or the agent automatically terminates the agency relationship. Example: The agency relationship between an elderly individual and their caregiver ends upon the individual’s passing.
  • Bankruptcy: If either the principal or the agent declares bankruptcy, the agency relationship may be terminated.
    Example: A company’s bankruptcy leads to the termination of its agency relationship with a sales representative.
  • Change in Circumstances: Significant changes in circumstances, such as the destruction of the subject matter of the agency, can lead to termination.
    Example: The agency relationship between a property manager and a landlord terminates if the managed property is destroyed by fire.

Effect of Termination on the Duties and Liabilities of Agents and Principals

The termination of an agency relationship has significant implications for the duties and liabilities of both agents and principals. Once the agency relationship ends, the following effects take place:

  • Cessation of Authority: The agent’s authority to act on behalf of the principal ceases immediately upon termination. Any actions taken by the agent after termination are not binding on the principal unless the principal ratifies them.
    Example: An agent who continues to negotiate contracts after being terminated no longer has the authority to bind the principal to those contracts.
  • Completion of Ongoing Transactions: Agents may have a duty to complete transactions that were in progress before the termination, provided these actions are necessary to protect the principal’s interests and do not require new authority.
    Example: A shipping agent might need to ensure that goods in transit are properly delivered to their destination even after the agency relationship ends.
  • Duty of Confidentiality: Even after termination, agents must maintain confidentiality regarding information acquired during the agency relationship. This duty survives the termination and continues indefinitely. Example: A former employee cannot disclose trade secrets or confidential information obtained during their employment.
  • Settlement of Accounts: Agents must provide an account of their activities and settle any outstanding financial matters with the principal upon termination. This includes returning any property or funds belonging to the principal.
    Example: A financial advisor must return client funds and provide a final account statement after their agency relationship ends.
  • Release from Obligations: Both the principal and the agent are released from their respective obligations under the agency agreement, except for those that are meant to survive termination, such as confidentiality agreements.
    Example: After a project manager’s contract is terminated, the company is no longer obligated to pay the manager’s salary, but the manager remains bound by a non-disclosure agreement.

Understanding the termination of agency relationships and its effects on the duties and liabilities of agents and principals is crucial for managing legal and business affairs. This knowledge is essential for the REG CPA exam, as it helps candidates navigate and apply agency law principles effectively.

Real-World Applications and Exam Tips

Practical Examples and Applications of Agency Law in Business

Understanding agency law is crucial for navigating various business scenarios where agents act on behalf of principals. Here are some practical examples and applications:

  • Corporate Management: CEOs and other corporate officers are agents of the company. They make decisions, enter contracts, and manage operations, binding the corporation in agreements made within their authority.
    Example: A CEO signs a contract with a supplier for raw materials. As an agent of the corporation, the CEO’s actions bind the company to the terms of the contract.
  • Real Estate Transactions: Real estate agents represent buyers and sellers in property transactions, negotiating deals and signing agreements on their behalf.
    Example: A real estate agent negotiates the sale of a home on behalf of the homeowner. The agent’s actions, within their authority, bind the homeowner to the sale agreement.
  • Employment Relationships: Employees act as agents of their employers, performing tasks, making decisions, and entering contracts within the scope of their employment.
    Example: A purchasing manager orders supplies for the company. The manager’s authority to act as an agent binds the company to the purchase agreement.
  • Financial Services: Financial advisors act as agents for their clients, managing investments, making trades, and providing financial advice.
    Example: A financial advisor buys stocks for a client’s portfolio. The advisor’s actions, within the scope of their authority, bind the client to the investment.

Tips for Answering REG CPA Exam Questions on This Topic

  1. Understand Key Concepts: Familiarize yourself with the definitions, duties, and liabilities of agents and principals. Know the differences between general agents, special agents, sub-agents, independent contractors, and employee agents.
  2. Memorize Key Duties: Remember the specific duties of agents (loyalty, obedience, care, accounting, disclosure) and principals (compensation, reimbursement, cooperation, safe working conditions).
  3. Analyze Scenarios: Practice analyzing hypothetical scenarios to identify the type of agent involved, the scope of their authority, and whether their actions fall within or outside that scope.
  4. Focus on Authority: Pay close attention to questions about the agent’s authority. Determine whether the agent acted within their actual, apparent, or implied authority.
  5. Review Case Studies: Study real-life cases and examples to understand how agency law applies in practical situations. This will help you apply theoretical knowledge to exam questions.
  6. Practice Multiple-Choice Questions: Use practice exams and multiple-choice questions to test your understanding of agency law concepts. Focus on questions that require application of knowledge to specific facts.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Studying This Topic

  1. Overlooking the Scope of Authority: Ensure you understand the different types of authority (actual, apparent, implied) and how they impact the principal’s liability for the agent’s actions.
  2. Ignoring Termination Effects: Don’t forget to study the effects of terminating an agency relationship on the duties and liabilities of agents and principals.
  3. Confusing Duties: Avoid mixing up the duties owed by agents to principals and those owed by principals to agents. Each set of duties is distinct and important.
  4. Neglecting Tort and Criminal Liability: Pay attention to the tort and criminal liabilities of agents, as these can often be overlooked but are crucial for a comprehensive understanding of agency law.
  5. Skipping Practical Applications: Don’t focus solely on theoretical aspects. Practical applications and real-world examples help reinforce your understanding and prepare you for exam scenarios.

By mastering these concepts and avoiding common pitfalls, you will be well-prepared to tackle agency law questions on the REG CPA exam. Understanding the practical applications of agency law in business will also enhance your ability to navigate legal and business environments in your professional career.


Recap of the Key Points Covered in the Article

In this article, we explored the essential aspects of the duties and liabilities of agents and principals, a critical topic for the REG CPA exam. We began with an introduction to the principal-agent relationship, highlighting its importance in business and legal contexts. We then defined agents and principals, explaining how agency relationships are formed.

We covered the various types of agents, including general agents, special agents, sub-agents, independent contractors, and employee agents, and discussed the specific duties agents owe to their principals, such as loyalty, obedience, care, accounting, and disclosure. We also examined the duties principals owe to their agents, including compensation, reimbursement, cooperation, and providing safe working conditions.

The article delved into the liabilities of agents, distinguishing between contractual, tort, and criminal liabilities. We also addressed how agency relationships can be terminated by the act of the parties or by operation of law and the effects of such termination on the duties and liabilities of agents and principals.

Finally, we provided practical examples and applications of agency law in business, tips for answering REG CPA exam questions on this topic, and common pitfalls to avoid when studying this material.

Final Thoughts on the Importance of Understanding the Duties and Liabilities of Agents and Principals for the REG CPA Exam

Understanding the duties and liabilities of agents and principals is crucial for anyone preparing for the REG CPA exam. This knowledge not only aids in exam preparation but also provides a solid foundation for navigating the complexities of agency relationships in professional practice. Mastery of this topic ensures that future CPAs can competently advise on and manage these relationships, safeguarding the interests of their clients or organizations.

By grasping the key concepts, duties, and liabilities discussed in this article, candidates will be better equipped to answer related exam questions and apply these principles in real-world scenarios. This comprehensive understanding is essential for achieving success on the REG CPA exam and excelling in the dynamic field of accounting and finance.

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