Few words strike fear in the hearts of taxpayers like “IRS audit.” People would rather do almost anything other than get an audit notice from the IRS. But what does an IRS audit really mean? What are your chances of an IRS audit? What happens after you are selected for an audit?
An IRS audit can indicate a problem, or not. Basically, an IRS audit is a review of a taxpayer’s tax return and financial documents to determine that income and deductions are reported correctly according to the tax laws. The IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement recently issued the full report of audit actions by income levels. If you’re not up for all the details, here are a few basics about your chances of an IRS audit and what happens if you are selected:
- Why is a taxpayer selected for an audit?
Selection for an audit does not always suggest a problem. It can mean that something on a return does not fit a “norm” for similar returns. The IRS also audits returns where information on a return does not match what is reported by a third party, such as interest from a bank account. The IRS could also select a return when performing a “related examination” of business partners or investors whose returns were selected for audit.
- How does the IRS notify taxpayers of an audit?
Taxpayers are contacted initially by regular mail from the IRS that she or he has been selected for an audit. The IRS notice provides all contact information and instructions, as well as an explanation of the items on the return that do not match or that require additional documentation. All IRS notices include a deadline to reply. Opening and replying on time is an important part of the audit process.
- How does the IRS conduct an audit?
The IRS manages audits either by mail or through an in-person interview to review the related financial records. In-person interviews could be virtual during COVID-19. Usually, interviews are conducted at an IRS office or at the taxpayer’s home, place of business, or accountant’s office. Mail audit notices will request additional information about certain items shown on the tax return such as income, expenses, and itemized deductions.
- How far back can the IRS go to audit my return?
Generally, the IRS can include returns filed within the last three years in an audit. If they identify a substantial error, they could add additional years, but not usually more than the last six years. The IRS tries to audit tax returns as soon as possible after they are filed. Accordingly, most audits will be of returns filed within the last two years.
Your chances of an IRS audit are not easy to determine. An IRS audit can indicate a problem, or not. Either way, it’s good to know why you were selected, what could happen next, and how the audit is conducted. No matter what, make sure that you open the IRS notice when it arrives, read all the instructions, and reply by the due date.