By: David A. Shuster, JD, LLM, Directory of Tax Controversy Services
The possibility of an IRS audit worries many taxpayers. But if you know what the targets are, you have a better chance of avoiding an IRS examination.
Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that your tax return won’t be examined since the IRS randomly chooses some returns to audit. So you should always keep meticulous records to prove your deductions. With that in mind, here are 10 audit red flags:
1. Not reporting all income. The IRS is adept at “matching” the income reported about you by employers, banks, and brokerage firms against what you put down on your tax return.
2. Missing deadlines. The IRS notices - and penalizes – taxpayers who mail their returns even a few days late. Auditors may wonder what other rules were disregarded.
3. Self-employment. If you work for yourself and file Schedule C, you have a greater chance of an audit. The IRS is especially suspicious of businesses that look like hobbies. (If you want to turn a hobby into a business and protect yourself from IRS scrutiny, read our previous article by clicking here.)
4. Not reporting stock trades. Keep scrupulous records of your investments. The IRS is aware that some taxpayers make numerous daily trades online and don’t keep track of the transactions as the law requires.
5. Dealing in cash. IRS auditors are trained to search every nook and cranny of the cash-based financial world to detect cheating.
6. Setting up an illegal trust. Uncle Sam has a hit list of fraudulent deals, including “family residence trusts” and some foreign trusts. Don’t believe claims that you can establish a trust that allows you to avoid taxes, yet still own and control the assets.
7. Donating a car to charity and taking a deduction that’s too big. Under a tax law passed in 2004, charitable donations of vehicles come under strict new rules for deductions in excess of $500. Beginning January 1, 2005, a donor’s allowable write-off depends on how the donated asset is used by the charity.
If the organization sells the asset without using it significantly for charitable purposes or making material improvements, the donor’s deduction is generally limited to the amount of gross sales proceeds received by the charity. The fair market value of the donation, allowed under previous law, is no longer relevant.
8. Stepping out of bounds. IRS computers compare your return with those filed by other taxpayers with similar incomes. If your deductions are significantly higher, you may be asked why. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t claim every deduction you are entitled to. You just need to be aware of how the audit process works and hang onto the proper records.
9. Deducting prohibited or suspicious items. You just can’t write off certain expenses, such as funeral costs and country club dues. There are other deductions the IRS is often skeptical about, such as expensive meals and home office write-offs.
10. Being a “tax protestor.” Some people refuse to pay because they claim taxes are unconstitutional. The IRS has little patience for these arguments.
Important point: Even if your return is audited, an IRS examination is nothing to lose sleep over. In many cases, the IRS asks for proof of certain items on a tax return and “closes” the audit after the documentation is presented.
Still fear a meeting with the IRS? Keep in mind that you probably don’t have to attend an audit. You can stay home and designate your tax adviser to act on your behalf.