As the old adage goes, there are only two certainties in life ... and one of them is taxes.

With the rapidly changing financial landscape, corporations and individuals need someone to watch their backs and provide top-notch advice and support now more than ever.

Luckily, they have accountants.

Over the past year, the accounting world has shared the economic upheaval with small businesses, large corporations and investors the world over. While predictions about financial recovery remain understandably hazy, some trends in the economic world are becoming clearer every day.

Lee Weinel, CPA and principal with Soper, Soper & Weinel, says that accounting, like other segments of the business and financial spectrum, has adjusted to leaner operations while seeking to expand services to fit customers’ needs.

“A lot of our clients are looking for expanded services,” Weinel explains. “As the credit markets tighten, a lot of our corporate clients are looking for more in-depth financial statements where they used to simply go with compilations. Now they are required to have reviews or maybe even audits to keep their funding.”

Weinel says the increased workload generated by that expanded service has created longer workdays for firms, with the potential side effect of longer turnaround times to prepare information for clients. Major changes in nonprofit accounting have also increased the workload for both accounting firms and their clients. For this reason, Weinel suggests contacting your accountant early on and bringing the proper paperwork.

“When clients come, if they’re doing tax work we like them to bring the prior year’s tax return so we can review that,” Weinel stresses. “The information they bring for the current year needs to be complete. If they’re a business client, they need to bring any budgets they might have, or any prior financial statements.”

In addition to the obvious, the poor economy has created a number of other challenges for businesses. Richard Daeschner, CPA and principal with Rippe & Kingston, warned that when people feel an economic pinch, they might turn to less-than-honest means of compensation.

“What companies and management need to consider as the economy continues to struggle is that fraud and theft are a continuing concern,” Daeschner says. “On a weekly basis, we hear about companies that have had employees steal from them. Recently reported amounts have ranged from a few thousand dollars up to $8.7 million. Companies need to periodically review their internal controls to ensure there are not weaknesses that would allow theft.”

Contributing to this is the somewhat chaotic life cycle of everyone’s favorite water cooler subject: the 401(k). From a financial planning standpoint, investing in the current market could be a matter of biting the bullet or being struck by it. With a couple of years of steady downward momentum behind it, the current stock market could prove a long-term boon for the savvy investor.

“As everyone knows from looking at their investment or 401(k) statements, stocks have taken a beating over the last year,” Daeschner says. “For individuals who can leave their funds invested over a long-term period, this may be a great opportunity to invest. Admittedly, the economy still has some issues to work through, but with dollar cost averaging and a diversified portfolio, investment returns should be improved over this time period.”

Another potential boon to businesses and individuals is the potential incentivization of the tax code, says Kevin Begley, a tax principal with Decosimo. Efforts to help prop up some of the sagging portions of the economy, such as auto and home sales, have led to talk of creating numerous incentives to draw consumers to those markets.

“Incentives are a big change,” Begley says. “These have been kicked around in Congress. One example is if you have an old car that gets less than 17 or 18 miles a gallon, and if you trade that in for a car that gets much better mileage, you can get a tax credit. This seems like it has some momentum. There are also incentives for first-time home buyers.”

Other changes facing individuals are tax code modifications based on income thresholds. Expiring tax breaks and the need to increase government revenue have sparked talk of these thresholds, which would mean that individuals falling above or below certain yearly incomes could either see dramatic tax increases or decreases.

“There are a lot of tax changes on the horizon from an individual’s standpoint, too,” Begley says. “There’s a lot of speculation based on President Obama’s agenda about how it’s going to change and when it’s going to change. There has been a lot of rhetoric about taxing the rich, or tax hikes hitting the middle class. There has been discussion about certain income thresholds that, if you make less than the threshold, you won’t be subject to a tax hike, but there has been no legislation yet.”

These changes alone create new and hazardous ways for unwary businesses or individuals to either lose money by missing out on potential incentives to finding themselves unprepared for potentially wild swings in the familiar tax rates. Compounding the issue for both accounting firms and their clients is a rumored shift to an entirely new system of accounting.

“There are a number of things on the horizon that could not only affect the accounting side, but the tax side, as well,” Begley cautions. “The GAAP, or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, is a large volume of rules on how to account for numerable types of transactions. It appears that those standards could be replaced with international standards, which are actually less comprehensive than the U.S. standards. In the U.S., if you had a gray area, you could usually find it somewhere in the GAAP, since it has mostly been codified. In the international, it may be subject to a lot more interpretation. If the international standards are adopted, it could be a lot different from what people have been seeing.”

This phasing out of the old system could mean more than a simple strategy or paperwork shift for many companies. According to Daeschner, it could result in major penalties for some companies who will no longer be allowed to use their tried and true business practices under the new system.

“The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has started the process of transitioning the accounting of U.S. companies to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS),” Daeschner recounts. The IFRS does not allow the Last-In, First-Out method, which tallies the most recently purchased pieces of inventory as the first items to be sold through a business. (Inflation typically causes the prices of goods to raise over time, so listing the last item purchased — which would be the most expensive — as the first item sold allows the recorded value of your inventory to remain lower, thereby decreasing profit and reducing taxes.) This could have a significant effect on companies that use this inventory method, Daeschner says, and it’s possible that some companies could have a large tax liability if it was disallowed.

All of this creates a more intimidating financial environment for the layman, but doesn’t need to contribute to the overall stress of operating your business or planning your financial future. Advice and honest, forthright conversation about your financial situation should be a priority for any accounting firm, says Anthony Perazzo, a partner and assistant director of accounting and auditing with BKD. The goal is to remember that you’re not working with numbers, but with people.

“This ‘perfect’ economic storm is painful to the accounting profession,” Perazzo notes. “We need to be direct with clients, but no professional wants to deliver the message that we have serious doubts about the viability of a client’s business, especially if we have served them for many years, if not decades. However, we recognize and respect the importance of being forthright, discussing such tough issues, having the client make the appropriate disclosures and reporting appropriately in our auditor’s opinion on the financial statements. The users of financial statements — banks, investors, regulators, stakeholders — must know the whole picture.”

A part of the picture is helping clients to review their financial histories and use that to forecast a financial future. If things match up correctly, the result is a continuation or expansion of current operations. Failing that, Perazzo says clients deserve to know what their financial status could be over the upcoming fiscal year.

“As auditors, one of our responsibilities is to evaluate whether there is substantial doubt as to our client’s ability to continue business for at least one year beyond the balance sheet date,” Perazzo says. “The economy has forced painful decisions and outcomes for many businesses. Without a doubt, current economic times are unlike any many business owners ever have experienced. The same holds true for accounting professionals who are witnessing a dramatic increase in ‘going concern’ issues with clients. Along with the rest of the country, we look forward to the eventual turnaround of the economy. At that point, we can return to discussing more pleasant issues with our clients, such as growth and expansion.”