Red Flags for Tax Auditors

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No one wants to see an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) auditor show up at his or her door. The IRS can’t audit every American’s tax return, so it relies on guidelines to select the ones most deserving of its attention.

Ever wonder why some tax returns are eyeballed by the Internal Revenue Service while most are ignored? Short on personnel and funding, the IRS audited only 0.60% of all individual tax returns in 2017, and the vast majority of these exams were conducted by mail. So the odds are pretty low that your return will be singled out for review. And, of course, the only reason filers should worry about an audit is if they are fudging on their taxes.

That said, your chances of being audited or otherwise hearing from the IRS escalate depending on various factors, including your income level, the types of deductions or other tax breaks you claim.

Here are six flags that may make your tax return prime for an IRS audit.¹

The Chance of an Audit Rises with Income
According to the IRS, less than 1% of all individual taxpayer returns are audited. However, the percent of audits rises to over 2% for those with incomes between $500,000 and $1 million, and is over 4% for those making between $1 million and $5 million.²

Deviations from the Mean
The IRS has a scoring system it calls the Discriminant Information Function that is based on the deduction, credit, and exemption norms for taxpayers in each of the income brackets. The IRS does not disclose its formula for identifying aberrations that trigger an audit, but it helps if your return is within the range of others with similar income.

When a Business is Really a Hobby
Taxpayers who repeatedly report business losses increase their audit risk. In order for the IRS not to consider your business as a hobby, it needs to have earned a profit in three of the last five years.

Non-Reporting of Income
The IRS receives income information from employers and financial institutions. Individuals who overlook reported income are easily identified and may provoke greater scrutiny.

Discrepancies Between Exes
When divorced spouses prepare individual tax returns, the IRS compares the separate submissions to identify instances where alimony payments are reported on one return but alimony income goes unreported on the contra party’s return.

Claiming Rental Losses
Passive loss rules prevent deductions of losses on rental real estate, except in the event when an individual is actively participating in the property’s management (deduction is limited and phased out), or with real estate professionals who devote greater than 50% of their working hours to this activity. This is a deduction to which the IRS pays keen attention.

  1. The information in this material is not intended as tax or legal advice. It may not be used for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. Please consult legal or tax professionals for specific information regarding your individual situation.
  2. IRS, 2017

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