Audits

How to Prepare for an IRS Audit

The IRS recently announced it intends to hire thousands of new employees as part of a tax-enforcement push. This could mean an uptick in audits sometime soon, likely focused on wealthier individuals and business owners. (Some tax returns are chosen randomly as well.)

The best way to survive an IRS audit is to prepare for one in advance. On an ongoing basis, you should systematically maintain documentation (invoices, bills, canceled checks, receipts and other proof) for the items that you report on your tax return. Maintain and back up these records safely. With that said, it also helps to know what might catch the tax agency’s attention.

IRS Tax Audit Hot Spots

Certain types of tax-return entries are known to the IRS to involve inaccuracies, so they may lead to an audit. One example is significant inconsistencies between tax returns filed in the past and your most current tax return. If you miscalculate deductions or try to claim unusually high ones, your return could be flagged. And if you’re a business owner, gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of similar companies could subject you to an audit.

Certain types of deductions, such as auto and travel expense write-offs, may be questioned by the IRS because there are strict recordkeeping requirements involved. In addition, an owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those of similar and similarly located companies can catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is a corporation.

IRS Contact Methods

The IRS normally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often an audit doesn’t begin until a year or more after you file a return. If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS doesn’t make initial contact by phone. If there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call. Ignore unsolicited email messages about an audit. The IRS doesn’t contact people in this manner; these are scams.

Many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions that you’ve claimed. Others may ask you to provide receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the harshest version, the field audit, requires you to meet personally with one or more IRS auditors.

Keep in mind that the tax agency won’t demand an immediate response to a mailed notice. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. You’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.

How Maggart CPAs Can Help

If the IRS chooses you for an audit, Maggart’s CPAs can help you understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always clear) and then gather the documents and information needed. We can also help you respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.

Above all, don’t panic! Many audits are routine. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your tax-related information, whether for an individual or business return, you’ll make an audit easier and even decrease the chances that one will happen in the first place.

Innocent Spouse Rules Offer Protection Under Some Circumstances

Does one spouse have to pay the tax resulting from a fabrication or omission by another spouse on a jointly filed tax return? It depends. If the spouse qualifies, he or she may be able to avoid personal tax liability under the “innocent spouse” rules.

Joint Filing Status

Generally, married taxpayers benefit overall by filing a joint tax return on the federal level. This is particularly the case when one spouse earns significantly more than the other. Filing jointly may also help the couple maximize certain income tax deductions and credits.

But joint filing status comes with a catch. Each spouse is “jointly and severally” responsible for any tax, interest and penalties attributable to the return. And this liability continues to apply even if the couple gets a divorce or one spouse dies. In other words, the IRS may try to collect the full amount due from one spouse, even if all the income reported on the joint return was earned by the other spouse.

Basic Rules

However, the tax law provides tax relief for an “innocent spouse.” Under these rules, one spouse may not be liable for any unpaid tax and penalties, despite having signed the joint return.

To determine eligibility for relief, the IRS imposes a set of common requirements. The spouses must have filed a joint return that has an understatement of tax, and that understatement must be attributable to one spouse’s erroneous items. For this purpose, “erroneous items” are defined as any deduction, credit or tax basis incorrectly stated on the return, as well as any income not reported.

From there, the other (“innocent”) spouse must establish that, at the time the joint return was signed, he or she didn’t know — or have reason to know — there was an understatement of tax. Finally, to qualify, the IRS needs to find that it would be unfair to hold one spouse liable for the understatement after considering all the facts and circumstances.

What Does the IRS Consider?

The IRS considers “all facts and circumstances” in determining whether it would be inequitable to hold an “innocent” spouse liable for taxes due on a jointly filed tax return. One factor that may increase the likelihood of relief is that the taxes owed are clearly attributable to one spouse or an ex-spouse who filled out the errant return.

If one spouse was deserted during the marriage, or suffered abuse, it may also improve the chances that innocent spouse relief will be granted. In some cases, the IRS may examine the couple’s situation to determine whether the spouse applying for relief knew about the erroneous items.

Additional Notes

For many years, innocent spouse relief had to be requested within two years after the IRS first began its collection activity against a taxpayer. But, in 2011, the IRS announced that it would no longer apply the two-year limit on collection activities.

In addition, by law, when one spouse applies for innocent spouse relief, the IRS must contact the other spouse or former spouse. There are no exceptions even for victims of spousal abuse or domestic violence.

Help Is Available

Historically, courts haven’t been particularly generous about upholding claims under the innocent spouse rules. State laws can also complicate matters. If you’re wondering whether you’d qualify for relief, please contact Maggart for help.