As tax season begins in earnest, millions of Americans are getting their financial houses in order, trying to make sure they maximize their deductions and capitalize on any new tax breaks recently passed onto law. The annual ritual comes with a warning that all too many people take lightly: Do whatever you can to make sure you don’t get audited.
The Internal Revenue Service typically audits fewer than 1% of tax returns annually, so the probability of drawing federal scrutiny is incredibly low. While most of those audits consist of agency employees asking a few questions for clarifications, a fraction of them include going after people intent on defrauding the government — both taxpayers and tax preparers.
In 2017, the agency's Criminal Investigation Division initiated 3,019 cases, according to its annual report.
While that may seem like a lot, in that same report, Don Fort, chief of the agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, says, ““We have the same number of special agents — around 2,200 — as we did 50 years ago. Financial crime has not diminished during that time — in fact, it has proliferated in the age of the Internet, international financial crimes and virtual currency.” In other words – the IRS is swamped!
Here’s what happens in an IRS audit
But as regular ol’ law-abiding consumers prepare their tax returns, they may have questions about the likelihood of being audited and what that process looks like. The IRS reserves the right to audit any taxpayer, even if agency reps don’t see any discrepancies. The agency says taxpayers may fall under audit scrutiny due to random selection, computer screenings or just by being tied to other entities such as partnerships or other business collectives. Here’s how an audit works:
The agency will notify you via mail
As it constantly stresses when scams arise, the IRS never initiate contact to taxpayers by phone or email (and certainly not by text message or on social media platforms). The agency will use postmarked letters via snail mail. Once the correspondence has been received and contact established, here is where things typically get more intimate.
An in-person interview may be arranged
If necessary, an agent will set up a meeting either at a local IRS office or at your home. “If we conduct your audit by mail, our letter will request additional information about certain items shown on the tax return such as income, expenses, and itemized deductions,” the IRS says on its website. “If you have too many books or records to mail, you can request a face-to-face audit.”
What will you need to bring?
The IRS will tell you what to bring to the audit. The requested documents will vary based on your situation but they will basically need to support the income and losses you claim, including deductions, medical/dental records, insurance reports, credits and more.
- If via mail: If the audit process is initiated by mail, they will provide the address for you to mail the paperwork. They may also require you to fill out a questionnaire. Some of the common forms are the Schedule C query and the Travel, Meals & Entertainment query.
- If meeting in person: If your meeting is face to face, again, they will instruct you on what documents to bring. Before you get there, they will want you to organize your paperwork by year to speed up the process.
After they get all of your paperwork, the IRS will make a determination — but don’t think that it will happen in a timely fashion. The agency generally retains a three-year statute of limitations, but for cases involving “substantial errors,” they can go back additional years (usually no more than six), according to the IRS website.
When happens when the audit is completed
When an audit is completed, you will be notified of the agency’s determination. The three scenarios are:
- Substantiation: When the IRS determines that your tax information has been verified, you will be asked to sign the examination report and your filing will be processed as normal.
- Changes: The agency will recommend adjustments/corrections be made to your filing — but you have to agree with them and make the changes. If you owe, here is a list of payment options.
- Appeal: When you disagree with the agency's findings, you have the right to talk to an IRS manager, request the agency's Appeals Mediation Program or file an appeal with the independent Office of Appeals by mailing a protest letter. If you decide on the latter, know that this does not forfeit your right to seek a remedy through the court, but the appeals process is less formal and cheaper.
While the federal audit process is pretty straightforward, the process may differ slightly on the state level. For details, see your state’s tax appeals division usually found within its Department of Revenue.