The Ins and Outs of IRS Audits

What You Need to Know

IRS Building in Washington
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If you're like most taxpayers, the thought of an IRS audit doesn't sit well with you, but it might not be as bad as you think. Only around 1% of personal returns are audited annually, and the majority of these involve nothing more than an exchange of correspondence. However, in more extreme cases, you may have to meet with the IRS in-person.

Why You May Have Been Chosen

Every tax return the IRS receives is scanned by a computer system to check for anomalies between it and other returns filed by taxpayers who are in a similar financial situation. This is called the discriminate information function (DIF). For example, most people who earn $75,000 a year do not give $50,000 of their income to charity. If you did this, and you claimed an itemized tax deduction for that amount, the IRS computer would likely trigger an alert. The system assigns each return a DIF score, and a high one indicates that the information in your tax return is unusual and does not meet the norms for your financial situation. At this point, a human agent steps in to personally review your tax return and decide whether it should be audited. This would happen, for example, if two or more taxpayers claimed the same dependent. The computer scans for things like dependents’ Social Security numbers.

Other triggers include returns that report information from the same financial transactions. For example, say you are an independent contractor who did some consulting for ABC Corporation, and they issued you a 1099-MISC for your services. The corporation’s return might have been questionable, and the organization is being audited. In this case, an agent might also review your personal return because you did business with ABC Corporation, especially if the firm paid you a substantial amount of money. If there is anything odd about your return, you can probably count on being audited.

Receiving Notice of an Audit

Most people who are being audited don’t even realize it’s happening. If an IRS agent examines your return and determines that there are questions to be answered, you will receive a notice through the mail that explains what they feel is wrong with your return. They may ask you to confirm certain information and provide additional supporting documentation. Most importantly, they will tell you if you can simply return the documentation by mail or if you must meet in person with an IRS agent.

Correspondence Audits

When you are asked to return supporting documentation by mail, the IRS calls this a “correspondence audit.” Ideally, you will receive another notice a few weeks after you have supplied the required documentation that confirms that your return is found to be accurate and the audit is over. If it turns out that you owe the IRS money, you will receive a notice that your return was wrong, and you must send the IRS the requested amount or contact them to explore payment options.

Take some precautions when you mail in documentation to the IRS. Use certified mail, with a return receipt requested, so there is no doubt that the IRS actually received it. You can also fax the requested documents, so you will have a facsimile receipt showing that the transmission went through. If the IRS misplaces the information after this point, it is their responsibility.

In-Person Audits

In more serious cases, you could face a full-fledged office or field audit. An office audit takes place at an IRS location, whereas a field audit occurs at a place of your choosing—typically your home or tax professional’s office. You will be required to meet face-to-face with an IRS agent and answer some questions. You may also be asked to provide supporting documentation.

A correspondence audit typically focuses on one narrow issue, while an in-person audit usually indicates that the IRS has more than a few questions about your return. You are meeting with the agent face-to-face because they want to dig for information.

Some of the questions may seem innocuous, but the agent is really only interested in getting to the bottom of your return. You can also decline to answer a question and say you will get back to them once you have looked the information up.

Many tax attorneys recommend that you do not attend the audit personally—either alone or with your tax advisor—but instead send an authorized representative. Authorized representatives must have credentials recognized by the IRS.

Supporting Documentation 

Most audits take place within two years of the filing date of a tax return, but the IRS technically has up to three years to conduct its questioning on returns. If they find substantial errors, they may decide to go back up to six years. This longer timeframe typically occurs because something about a more recent return has raised questions about an older one. You should keep all supporting tax documentation for six years, just in case. Tax law requires that you keep it for three years at a minimum. The IRS accepts electronically stored data in some cases, but you might want to keep paper copies for backup.

The Resolution

An audit is resolved in one of three ways:

  • The IRS determines there is no problem with your tax return.
  • The IRS determines there is a problem, and you recognize your error and agree with the changes.
  • The IRS determines there is a problem and has proposed changes that you disagree with.

If you agree, you will be asked to sign an examination report and possibly remit a few more dollars in taxes. When you sign and pay, that’s it; your audit is over. If you disagree, you can ask for mediation to try and work things out, or you can speak to an IRS manager and perhaps convince them that the original agent’s estimation of the situation is wrong. You also have the right to appeal any IRS decision.