With the beginning of tax season just a few weeks away, many business owners will soon be turning their attention to their tax returns. One concern that inevitably creeps into many taxpayers' minds is the possibility of being audited by the IRS.
A tax audit is an examination of an organization's or individual's tax return to verify that financial information is being reported correctly. While the chances of being singled out for closer scrutiny are statistically low, there are factors that could increase your odds of receiving an audit notice. Fortunately, there are measures you can take now to minimize future problems.
What triggers an audit?
A variety of potential "triggers" in tax returns tend to raise questions and attract unwanted attention from the IRS. The IRS uses a computer scoring system, called the Discriminant Information Function (DIF) system, which analyzes tax deductions, compares taxpayer data, and is often the basis for initiating an audit.
According to TurboTax, issues can crop up when income is not fully reported or business operating losses are considered out of the ordinary. Other audit triggers may include errors or inconsistencies in the return, omissions, lavish business-expense deductions for meals and entertainment, and a sharp drop in reported income from one year to the next. Exceptionally large charitable deductions can sometimes trigger an IRS audit, but they're usually allowed when a taxpayer has receipts and documentation to back them up.
Another item likely to prompt the IRS to dig deeper is having money in a foreign bank account. Examiners also pay closer attention to cash-intensive businesses such as restaurants and convenience stores, which generate a lot of cash receipts from smaller transactions. [See Related Story: Getting Audited? How to Handle It Like a Pro]
Although most business owners and other taxpayers cringe at the idea of having to defend their tax return in an IRS audit, there's usually little reason to worry. In its 2015 Data Book, the IRS reported that most audits (72.6 percent) were resolved via correspondence, rather than face-to-face meetings. The remaining 27.4 percent were conducted in the field (at the taxpayer's place of business or CPA's office) or at an IRS facility. While nearly 1.4 million tax returns were examined, that number represents a relatively small percentage (less than 1 percent) of the more than 150 million individual returns received and processed every year.
Scott Berger, a CPA and principal at the Boca Raton, Florida, office of Kaufman Rossin, said the IRS is moving more toward correspondence audits, which can impact individual taxpayers, small businesses and sole proprietorships. With this type of audit, the taxpayer receives a notice from the IRS saying that the agency is examining a tax return and has questions about specific line items. The purpose of the notification is usually to request supporting documentation for the line items being questioned.
How to minimize risk
Berger said one of the best ways to reduce your chances of being audited is to keep detailed records. This also helps ensure that if you are questioned by the IRS, you'll be able to substantiate deductions, income and other information. He recommended organizing bookkeeping systems to create a clear and accurate record of all transactions, as well as maintaining and preserving the source documents used for accounting and tax preparation.
"The other thing I would recommend that somebody do is hire a bookkeeper," Berger said. "Look at what it's going to save you, not what it's going to cost you."
With the assistance of a knowledgeable bookkeeper or tax preparer, "issues will be vetted before [they're] presented on a tax return," Berger said. Accounting and bookkeeping professionals can also help substantiate and validate information reported to the IRS, he added.
What to do if you get an audit notice
Berger and other tax professionals said they generally advise against communicating directly with the IRS if you do receive an audit letter. Berger said his clients often tell him that because they have nothing to hide, they want to call the IRS and let them know that. Based on his nearly 30 years as a CPA, Berger thinks that's a bad idea.
"Generally speaking, nothing good ever comes out of that," he said. "Yes, they have nothing to hide; the return is all on the up and up, but this person on the other side of the phone has a job to do, and their job is to make sure the government collects all the taxes that it [legitimately] can."
Berger also cautioned that IRS audit letters are always sent by postal mail, so phone calls or notifications sent via email are invariably scams.
Martin Press, a tax attorney with Gunster law firm, agrees that clients should not represent themselves in tax audits. As soon as a small business owner receives an audit notice in the mail, they should immediately contact their CPA and provide him or her with a signed power-of-attorney form (#2848), he said. This authorizes either a CPA, tax attorney or enrolled agent to contact the IRS and handle the audit, without the taxpayer needing to be present. He also said the audit examination should be held at the CPA's office and not the taxpayer's place of business.
Press said clients are always relieved when he informs them that they do not have to appear before the IRS — either initially or at any time down the road.
"The IRS, many times, claims that they have to start out with an interview of the taxpayer," Press said. "There is no obligation for a taxpayer to do an interview at the beginning of a tax examination. Under what we call a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, they may never have to give an interview with the Internal Revenue Service."
Although taxpayers are not required to meet directly with the IRS, an examination of a small business taxpayer is usually not over quickly; it often takes a minimum of six months to a year to resolve, Press said. If no resolution is reached, however, or if taxpayers wish to dispute the outcome of the initial audit, they do have a right to appeal it. Statistics released in the IRS' 2015 Data Book show that a relatively small percentage of audited taxpayers decide to pursue further action. "Of the almost 1.4 million examinations of tax returns, nearly 28,000 taxpayers did not agree with the IRS examiner's determination," the report said.