What Are the Top IRS Audit Triggers?

Understanding IRS audit triggers is crucial for both individuals and businesses aiming to maintain compliance with tax laws and avoid the stress and complications of an audit. An IRS audit can be an intimidating process, but by recognizing and mitigating common audit triggers, you can better prepare and safeguard your financial and accounting practices. This comprehensive guide explores the top IRS audit triggers, offering insights into accounting and finance practices that can help you avoid them.

An IRS audit is an examination of an individual’s or business’s financial records to ensure that the information provided on tax returns is accurate and compliant with tax laws. The purpose of an audit is to verify that the reported income, deductions, and credits are correct, and to ensure that the appropriate amount of tax has been paid. Audits can be triggered randomly or due to specific red flags in tax filings, such as unusually high deductions or discrepancies in reported income.

Types of IRS Audits

Correspondence Audit: Conducted through mail, typically for simple errors or missing documentation.
Office Audit: In-person audit at an IRS office for more detailed examination.
Field Audit: Conducted at the taxpayer’s location, usually for complex cases.
Taxpayer Compliance Measurement Program (TCMP) Audit: Comprehensive audit reviewing every aspect of the taxpayer’s return.

Top IRS Audit Triggers

High Income

The IRS tends to scrutinize high-income earners more closely. Individuals reporting significant income are more likely to face an audit, as the IRS assumes there is more potential for discrepancies.

  • Income over $200,000: Individuals earning more than $200,000 annually have a higher chance of being audited.
  • Millionaires: The audit rate increases substantially for taxpayers with income over $1 million.

Large Deductions

Claiming unusually large deductions compared to your income level can raise red flags with the IRS.

  • Charitable Contributions: Excessive donations relative to your income can trigger an audit. Ensure you have proper documentation and receipts.
  • Business Expenses: High business expenses, especially in areas like travel, meals, and entertainment, are scrutinized. Keep detailed records and receipts.
  • Home Office Deduction: This deduction is often abused. Ensure you meet the strict requirements and have accurate measurements and usage records.

Discrepancies Between Forms

Inconsistencies between forms filed with the IRS and those provided to you or reported by third parties (e.g., W-2, 1099) can trigger an audit.

  • Form 1099: Income reported on your tax return should match the amounts on 1099 forms received from clients or financial institutions.
  • Form W-2: Your reported wages should align with the W-2 provided by your employer.

Self-Employment and Cash Businesses

Self-employed individuals and cash businesses are under higher scrutiny due to the potential for unreported income.

  • Schedule C Filers: Self-employed individuals filing Schedule C face a higher audit risk, particularly those reporting high income or losses.
  • Cash-Intensive Businesses: Restaurants, bars, hair salons, and similar businesses are more likely to be audited. Proper record-keeping and accounting practices are essential.

Foreign Accounts and Income

Reporting foreign accounts and income is a significant audit trigger due to increased IRS focus on offshore tax evasion.

  • FBAR and FATCA: Failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts (FBAR) or comply with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) can lead to audits and substantial penalties.
  • Foreign Income: Properly report all foreign income, even if it’s taxed abroad, to avoid IRS scrutiny.

Rental Real Estate Losses

Claiming rental real estate losses can be a red flag, especially if you’re not classified as a real estate professional.

  • Passive Activity Loss Rules: Understand the rules around passive activity losses. Regularly incurring losses without making a profit can attract IRS attention.
  • Real Estate Professional Status: To claim losses without limitation, you must materially participate in the real estate activity, meeting specific IRS criteria.

Claiming Dependents

Errors in claiming dependents are common audit triggers, especially in cases of divorce or shared custody.

  • Social Security Numbers: Ensure you correctly list the Social Security numbers for each dependent.
  • Shared Custody: Only one parent can claim a child as a dependent each year, as per IRS rules.

Early Retirement Plan Withdrawals

Withdrawing from retirement accounts before the age of 59½ can attract IRS scrutiny due to penalties and additional taxes.

  • Form 1099-R: Ensure the income from early withdrawals is accurately reported.
  • Exceptions: Familiarize yourself with the exceptions to early withdrawal penalties and ensure you meet the criteria if claiming them.

Excessive Losses

Reporting excessive losses, particularly in hobbies turned businesses or gambling activities, can raise red flags.

  • Hobby vs. Business: Demonstrate profit motive and maintain proper records to prove your activity is a business, not a hobby.
  • Gambling Losses: Report all gambling winnings and losses accurately, maintaining detailed records and receipts.

Filing Status and Tax Credits

Inappropriate use of filing statuses and tax credits can trigger audits.

  • Head of Household: Ensure you meet the requirements to file as head of household, including maintaining a home for a qualifying person.
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): The IRS closely examines claims for the EITC due to its high potential for fraud.

Accurate and Honest Reporting

The foundation of avoiding audits is accurate and honest reporting of all income, deductions, and credits.

Verify All Information: Double-check your return for errors and ensure all income matches the forms received.
Honesty is Key: Never omit income or inflate deductions intentionally.

Detailed Record-Keeping

Maintain meticulous records to substantiate all claims on your tax return.

Income Records: Keep copies of all income documentation, including W-2s, 1099s, and bank statements.
Expense Receipts: Retain receipts for all claimed expenses and deductions.
Mileage Logs: For vehicle expenses, maintain detailed mileage logs and purpose of trips.

Use Accounting Software

Employing accounting software can streamline the process of tracking income and expenses, reducing the risk of errors.

QuickBooks: Widely used by businesses for its comprehensive tracking and reporting features.
Xero: Cloud-based accounting software offering robust tools for small businesses.
FreshBooks: Ideal for freelancers and small businesses, focusing on ease of use and invoicing.

Professional Tax Preparation

Consider hiring a certified public accountant (CPA) or tax professional, especially if you have a complex tax situation.

Expertise: Tax professionals are well-versed in current tax laws and can help ensure your return is accurate and complete.
Representation: In the event of an audit, a tax professional can represent you and help navigate the process.

Regular Financial Reviews

Conduct regular reviews of your financial situation to catch discrepancies and adjust records as needed.

Expertise: Tax professionals are well-versed in current tax laws and can help ensure your return is accurate and complete.
Year-End Review: Perform a comprehensive review at year-end to prepare for tax filing and identify any potential issues.

Taking a proactive approach to accounting and finance is necessary in order to successfully navigate IRS audit triggers. You may considerably lessen the likelihood of being audited if you have a thorough awareness of the frequent triggers, if you keep detailed records, if you use accounting software, and if you speak with tax professionals.

Compliance and financial health are further ensured by conducting regular financial evaluations, adhering to ethical procedures, and engaging in smart tax planning. These best practices will assist you in avoiding scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service and managing your tax obligations with confidence, regardless of whether you are an individual taxpayer or the owner of a business.