The Internal Revenue Service routinely audits about 1% of all personal income tax returns. Sometimes the Service performs audits based on irregularities in the tax returns, but often it selects returns at random. To minimize your chances of being audited, and having to deal with the inevitable tax problems that ensue, there are some surprisingly simple strategies to avoid an unwanted visit from Uncle Sam's agents.
Because computers screen the huge majority of personal returns, the IRS has set specific tolerance limits for various categories of income and deductions. If your numbers fall outside these limits, you will likely face an audit. What are the red flags?
The biggest flag is unreported income. If you received a W-2 or a 1099 from anyone, note that that entity also notified the IRS. This is the granddaddy of red flag issues, and this alone can trigger an audit.
Odd or statistically illogical deductions are another pitfall. If you list a charitable deduction that is equal to 25% of your income, you are asking for attention. Likewise, if your income changed drastically from last year, if you have an overly long list of itemized deductions, or if state and federal returns do not match, you have set yourself up for tax trouble.
Specific deductions that are red flag magnets include anything to do with pets, unless you have an assistance animal due to blindness or disability. Many taxpayers attempt to deduct the cost of elective surgery or over-the-counter medicine. Both are red alerts in the eyes of the IRS. If you volunteer, the cost of your time is never deductible, nor is routine transportation to and from your job. If you travel while on the job, that is a different story, since deducting the cost of site-to-site travel is perfectly acceptable.
Home telephone costs are never deductible, except for separate long-distance charges unique to your job.
Generally speaking, the IRS will select any return that contains multiple instances of incorrect mathematics, incomplete lines or boxes, and excessive use of round numbers. Very few people donate exactly $100 to several charities, incur precisely $500 in transportation expenses, or spend $1000, to the penny, on deductible dental surgery. The IRS knows this, and sets its computers to pull returns that contain too much numeric roundness.
Avoiding the red flag items is easy to do. Dealing with the headaches, and expenses, of an audit are every taxpayer's worst nightmare. But with these tips, you can help decrease your chance of an audit and a visit from the IRS.