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If there’s one thing the IRS is most known and feared for, it’s the audit. It’s well-known by now that the IRS has had its eye on tax-exempt conservative groups, but what you may not realize is that they’ve now expanded that extra attention to entrepreneurs, owners of small businesses, and high income earners. This is atypical of their past trends, since they had previously focused efforts on watching large corporations. However, the number of revenue agents in the IRS has risen by more than 5,000 people in the last few years.
Who’s at Risk?
This expansion in auditing-capability primarily hits the upper-middle class and affluent individuals. Without raising taxes, this move has allowed the IRS to greatly increase total tax collections because more audits are performed and more revenue officers are available to collect unpaid taxes from citizens. Grumble if you will, but the decision-makers are probably pretty happy with their investment in extra workers. Estimates show that the IRS has an 18 to 1 return rate on each dollar invested in audits and collections.
Are you feeling confident that your business is too small to come under scrutiny? Think again. The IRS conducted a study involving 46,000 taxpayers, and the results indicate a $345 billion tax gap. Guess what else the study revealed—about two-thirds of that gap came from entrepreneurs, small business owners, professionals, and investors. The IRS has grown its means to act on suspicious tax returns, and it’s looking straight at you. That’s right; it’s moving about 30 percent of its auditors away from large corporations and using that workforce to scout out smaller prey.
What IRS Expansion Means for Your Tax Return
An audit can cost you a lot of money in professional fees, back taxes, interest, and penalties, so it makes sense to audit-proof your return now. Don’t assume that you make too little for the IRS to be concerned with you. Although the top earners have the highest audit risk (those earning more than $1 million have seen a dramatic increase in audit rates recently), even individuals making $200,000 are experiencing the effects of increased tax surveillance. Your risk of audit may not be as high as the 1 in 8 chance that millionaires now face, but it is trickling down to businesspeople with more modest incomes.
In order to understand why you may be audited, it helps to understand the process used by the IRS. It has several different methods for selecting returns for audit, and one that has been in use for decades is called the discriminant index factor (DIF). Basically, a mathematical formula is used to score a return, often based on the ratio of income to deductions. The process breaks down like this:
- You send in your tax return, and the systems at Martinsburg West Virginia National Computer Center run the numbers.
- Your return gets a DIF score. The higher the score, the bigger the chance that additional taxes may be able to be collected from you.
- IRS employees audit the returns with the highest score first (i.e. the returns that will bring in the most additional revenue).
The formula for DIF scores is regularly updated using an analysis of intensive audits, the Taxpayer Compliance Measurement Program (TCMP). It’s conducted every few years. For a TCMP audit, every single piece of information on the return is analyzed. For people reporting business receipts on their personal income tax return (Schedule C and Schedule F), gross business income is used to determine DIF score, not net business income. Red flags that generate a high DIF result may lead to your receiving a letter of inquiry, or even the dreaded examination of your tax return.
Avoiding the Audit
After computer DIF scores are assigned to the returns, IRS employees then select which returns will be audited. This process usually starts later than June. A computer formula may assign you a high DIF, but in the end it is up to classifiers working in the district offices to determine whether your return raises red flags. So, even if a high DIF result brings your return under scrutiny, you can follow some simple rules to keep down your chances of being selected for audit.
Take a look at some basic tips for making your return less likely to be audited:
- Balance Your Deductions—Risk of being scrutinized increases with the more deductions you take compared to the size of your income. Time your deductible expenses right so that they are fairly even on a year to year basis.
- Always Respond to Inquiries—If the IRS sends you a letter regarding missing schedules, send a response! Failing to answer makes you much more likely to be examined.
- Remember Form 8283—When you make a non-cash charitable contribution, you must include this form.
- File Your AMT—The alternative minimum tax is separate from regular taxes. You’ll need to use Form 6251 and send it in with your 1040.
- Document Your Casualty Losses—Casualty losses are already a red flag for the IRS. You definitely deserve any deductions you are entitled to for such losses, but be sure to document all information about the date of loss, cost, and any insurance payments you received. And, include this information with the return, not when they’ve flagged you for auditing.
- Report Any 1099 Income—If a client of yours reports a 1099 to the IRS, you’d better make sure you report it on your tax return. When you don’t, it’s considered a matching issue, and you will be contacted about it. In the case that you are contacted about a mismatch issue, respond to the IRS immediately to prevent an escalation of the situation.
- Use an Entity Structure—Filing a high number of gross receipts for your small business drastically increases your return’s chance of being examined. However, when you switch from reporting these on a Schedule C to reporting them as a corporation, partnership, or LLC, you significantly reduce that risk. Not only does using an entity structure lower your chance of being audited, it also decreases your taxes. It’s an excellent option to consider if you are functioning as a proprietorship or independent contractor.
- File On Time—This one should go without saying, but turning in your tax return by deadline (including extensions) can help you to avoid examination.
- File a Paper Return—Filing electronically may seem easy, but there’s a reason the IRS encourages taxpayers to use this method. An electronic return can go right into their DIF scoring system and be ready for analysis immediately. Rumor has it that only about half of all paper returns even get scored in the DIF system. Most taxpayers are required to use the electronic filing system. However, you can opt out by attaching IRS Form 8948 to your paper return.
- Watch Out for the Big Three—IRS agents are coming down hard on deductions for travel, automobiles, and entertainment expenses. The secret to having these deductions approved is documentation, documentation, documentation. Quick and dirty tip: The IRS requires 5 pieces of documented evidence, but all you really need is your receipt! It covers 1) date of the expense, 2) where the expense occurred, and 3) amount of the expense. Then, you simply write on the back of the receipt 4) the business purpose for the expense and 5) your relationship to the person or group you entertained. Simple! Just don’t forget the receipt—the IRS does not count credit card statements as receipts. For automobile deductions, you’ll also need to keep a mileage log.
Electronic filing has made auditing easier (and a bigger priority) for the IRS. Now that they need fewer employees sifting through paper files, they have allocated a larger portion of their workforce towards audits and collections. With this increased strength, they have turned their eyes toward smaller entities, but you can audit-proof your return by providing accurate documentation and following these tips. Don’t let the IRS intimidate you into forgoing deductions you have a right to!