For many businesses, the end of the calendar year means the beginning of tax season. As you prepare your receipts, invoices and other financial documents from the past 12 months, you may be concerned about the possibility of a dreaded tax audit.
As stressful and overwhelming as an audit may seem, there's no need to panic. It does need to be taken seriously, but audits often deal with simple data or reporting errors that the IRS suspects may have occurred, said Frank Pohl, an attorney at Gunster law firm. He reminded business owners that not all tax audits end adversely for taxpayers.
[Read related story: Best Tax Software for Business]
If you do receive an audit notice, here's what to do to make the process go as smoothly as possible, and to minimize any negative impact on your business.
1. Review the audit letter carefully.
Open the letter promptly, and understand what information the IRS needs from you, Pohl said. If you don't have a designated financial adviser, hire an accountant or tax attorney to help you go through the audit letter and identify the issues the IRS has flagged. Pohl also warned not to delay action or ignore the letter.
"The IRS will not go away, and not acting promptly may only make the auditor suspicious or antagonistic," he said.
For security purposes, if you are being audited, you will receive a mailed letter, Pohl said. Scammers will often masquerade as the IRS by sending emails or leaving phone messages in an attempt to get your personal data, but the real IRS does not communicate with taxpayers in these ways, Pohl said.
2. Get your records organized.
Before you and your tax professional respond to the IRS and/or meet with an auditor, take the time to dig up and organize all of your business records from the past tax year, said Kimberly Foss, a certified financial planner (CFP) and author of "Wealthy by Design" (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2013). This includes receipts and invoices for income and expenses, bank statements and canceled checks, accounting books and ledgers, hard copies of tax-prep data, and leases or titles for business property, she said. If the IRS has requested specific documents to review, be sure you have those readily accessible as well.
3. Answer the auditor's questions (and that's it).
When you sit down with the auditor, you'll be asked numerous questions about the information reported on your tax return. Our expert sources agreed that you should not volunteer any information you are not required to give.
"Just respond with the information [that is] requested," Pohl told Business News Daily. "Providing unneeded or unasked-for information may lead to more questions ... and additional issues."
"Be straightforward in responding to questions, but don't manufacture excuses," Foss added.
Similarly, an article on NOLO.com advises not to bring or discuss any documents from previous tax years unless asked: "Don't give copies of other years' tax returns to the auditor. In fact, don't bring ... any documents that do not pertain to the year under audit or were not specifically requested by the audit notice," said the article.
Keeping your tax professional involved
Dealing with the IRS can be stressful, and if you're concerned about what you might say, it's wise to let your tax professional do the talking for you. Sandy Gohlke, a CPA, chartered global management accountant and principal at Rehmann financial services company, advised giving the IRS a signed power-of-attorney agreement that will allow the IRS to deal directly with your tax professional. That takes you out of the loop and puts them in, she said.
Pohl agreed, and said that even if your tax professional doesn't have power of attorney, you should still have him or her present when you meet with an IRS auditor. He also advised business owners not to get defensive or hostile during the interview.
"The auditor ... cannot and will not forgive and tax debt or mistakes, and any admissions you make can be used against you," Pohl said. "Adopting an antagonistic attitude risks alienating the auditor, [which] will not be in your best interest."
Avoiding future audits
Gohlke reminded business owners that audits are generally random, and you can't prevent them entirely. However, some companies are selected because of certain "red flag" expenses — either amounts or types — that are out of the ordinary and would cause a second look, she said.
Foss noted that bank transfers and other financial records beyond your receipts should be tracked, and anything that can't be explained on the standard IRS form should be explained on paper. She also advised double-checking all of your math before filing.
"Keep proper documentation, and only deduct ordinary and necessary business expenses that are allowed by the IRS," Gohlke added. "Even if you are selected for an audit, you will know you have nothing to worry about."
Learn more about tax audits and how to minimize your risk in Business News Daily's guide.
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.