IRS Audit Triggers and Red Flags That Could Delay Your Refund – Why Tax Returns Are Pulled and How to Avoid Getting Audited

Most tax payers, including myself, share the same dread of getting audited by the IRS. But in reality the chances of facing an IRS audit aren’t all that high and continue to decline – funding cuts and better tax software are a big reason for this.

The IRS today audits, on average, less than 0.5% of the more than 150 million+ returns filed annually. Those with incomes greater than $200,000 though face an audit rate of around 1%, and for those earning more than $1 million the rate edged up to 2.4%. In comparison, it was over 8% in 2010. 

Mind you the percent is higher for big money earners because there are much fewer people in these income brackets and it is much more cost-effective for the IRS to target these groups, given their staffing constraints. After all, $1000 disallowed to a taxpayer in the 35% bracket generates $350 in additional tax, compared with only $100 from someone in the 10% bracket.

Common Reasons Returns are pulled for Review or Full Blown Audits

1. NEW changes this year compared to your last 3 years of filing? This will most definitely flag your return.
2. Significant discrepancies with claimed refundable credits (CTC, EITC, RRC)
3. Did you file prior to receiving your W-2? (ex: did you use your last paycheck stub?) there could be a math error.
4. Educational Credit?
5. ID verification
6. Add/drop dependents?
7. Offset (owed back taxes for a prior year) which will not show up on the offset line.
8. Have you checked the offset line (800) 304-3107
9. Health Care Form (1095A) missing/not included

Types of IRS Audits

Despite what you see in the movies and read in the tabloid media most IRS audits do not involve men in black suits storming your home or office looking for receipts and hidden stashes of cash and other valuables.

In fact most audits are “correspondence” audits where you get a letter from the IRS asking for more information. More than 1 million of the almost 1.4 million audits last year were correspondence audits, while only about 310,000 were actually field audits – those that involved face to face meetings.

You will generally be able to see if your return is or was audit was Tax code 420 on your IRS account transcript.

IRS Audit Triggers

The IRS has a few different audit methods. First, every return filed is scored by its “discriminant function” system, or DIF, said Robert P. Brennan, a former IRS agent. The score is based on the IRS’s study of a sample set of thousands of returns. From that study, the IRS determines what is an average and valid range for, say, the amount of charitable-contribution deductions claimed by a person earning $100,000 a year.

Then, a taxpayer with that income who claims a much higher deduction will get a high DIF score, and is thus likelier to get audited. That system only captures unusually high deductions; it can’t find someone who is under reporting income. So the IRS also organizes projects or focus areas, to examine certain types of businesses.

The IRS “is very concerned about the underground economy,” he said, adding that the IRS estimates about $290 billion in income goes unreported each year. As a result, in addition to high DIF scores, the tax agency focuses a keen eye on cash-based businesses, such as restaurants, gas stations and hair salons, Brennan said.

For small-business owners who receive Forms 1099, this is less of an issue, as the IRS can check what the taxpayer reports against the Form 1099 filed by the business that paid the money. In that situation, “the IRS has a record of all of your income earnings,” Brennan said. The project-based audits are focused “on the cash guy,” he said. “The cleaner who does your clothing, the guy who comes in to hang your lamp or do a back porch.

How to Avoid Getting Audited

Most non-automated IRS audits are based on people who take unexpected deductions based on their income or profession. Naturally the more deductions you have the less you pay in taxes and so the more likely the IRS is going to scrutinize your return. So by all means take your legitimate deductions, but keep your receipts so they you can substantiate the expense if you are ever audited.

I like to keep a large size yearly envelope for my personal and business expenses receipts. Whenever I expense something I get a receipt and dump it in there. You should also keep copies of past year’s tax returns and associated documents (3 years is recommended).

Incorrect numbers or math on a return are also red flags for triggering an audit. That’s why E-filing with tax software like Turbo tax is a way to cut down on math errors, since the tax software does the math for you and checks that your deductions make “sense” relative to the information in your return.
Here are some the key deductions the IRS looks at very closely:

Deduction for unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as meals and entertainment. “That’s always a popular form to audit,” Brennan said. “For a lot of people, that’s your classic bumping up of your expenses that you really don’t have,” he said. “When things are tough, people try to find as many deductions as they can,” he said. “I don’t tell my clients not to report this, I tell my clients be sure you can substantiate this.”

Home-office deduction. The IRS “is always interested in your office in the home,” Brennan said. “Not many people qualify for an office in the home, but many people claim it.”

Income from offshore accounts. The tax agency is “very interested this year in foreign bank accounts,” Brennan said. “They are trying to get foreign banks to disclose information of account holders. They will then take account-holder information, pull up that return and see if they disclosed it.”

Wage income, plus a Schedule C with a loss. “If a person is working full time and then [the IRS] sees a Schedule C with a loss” that may attract attention. “Some people have a vineyard or horse racing activity, they will seriously question that,” he said. “The IRS might say that’s a hobby.”

Carry-back of net operating losses. Business owners who carry-back a net operating loss may well find increased IRS scrutiny, Hechinger said. It’s likely, he said, the IRS may think “that because of the economy the way it is, people may be more aggressive. They want people to substantiate that loss carry-back,” he said. But “if it’s legitimate you’ve got to claim it.”

Capital-gain exclusion on home sale. .Many people have seen substantial capital gains when selling their home in the last few years. Any home improvements over the years would increase their basis in the home, and make it likelier that their gain falls within the capital-gains exclusion.

But make sure you can substantiate the basis. You know you spent the money on improving that house, but unfortunately people toss records over time. You have to find ways to substantiate it.

If the IRS comes-a-calling

If the IRS sends you correspondence regarding your tax return never ignore the letter and answer it before the due date. The IRS won’t go away so don’t wait for a repeat notice. If you had taxes prepared by a firm or accountant, sit down and talk to them and have them forward the requested information to the IRS.

If you did them yourself, make sure you provide the necessary information. Most leading tax filing software gives you the options of purchasing some kind of audit protection so take advantage of that if possible.

If this isn’t sufficient, you may be called in for a face-to-face audit. If that happens, consider hiring a professional like a CPA or a tax attorney to go with you. If you used a paid tax preparer, bring them along. Also make sure you prepare ahead of time to answer any questions.

How far back can my tax returns be audited?

The Statute of limitations for an IRS Audit is broken up into 2 components. The time during which an action can be brought by the IRS for an audit and the time for IRS tax collection activities. Generally, there is a 3-year statute of limitations for the IRS auditing a tax return and a 10-year statute of limitations for the IRS collecting tax.

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4 thoughts on “IRS Audit Triggers and Red Flags That Could Delay Your Refund – Why Tax Returns Are Pulled and How to Avoid Getting Audited”

  1. In case you are still set on representing yourself, I suggest these strategies for handling an IRS audit:
    • Understand the procedures for IRS audits as well as appeal procedures.
    • Do not volunteer information to the IRS and pretend to be helpful.
    • The IRS will be focused on certain items in your return. Stick with the issues under audit and provide the agent with proper documentation for the expense or income item claimed.
    • Do not allow the IRS to go on fishing expeditions into areas that fall outside the audit.
    • If your return was prepared wrong, discuss the situation with a qualified professional. We all make mistakes. If the mistake was innocent, admit the mistake and go on.


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