Don't Panic If Audited
An audit is merely a process where the IRS asks you to substantiate the numbers on your tax return. For example, if you claimed a charitable deduction of $750, the IRS would want to see canceled checks and receipts totaling $750. If you show up with $800 in substantiation, you get a refund; if your substantiation is less than $750, you owe money.
Some Survival Strategies
1. Call your tax professional. Never represent yourself at your own audit. You may know what to say, but you don't know what not to say. If the audit is simple -- to prove your charity and interest deductions, for example -- you can do it yourself by mailing in copies of your substantiation. Otherwise, for all in-person audits, I strongly suggest professional representation. In either case, if you have the records, you needn't worry.
2. Keep records for three years. The IRS can audit you for three years after you file your return. In reality, however, most returns are audited within 18 months of filing. This gives the IRS time to do the review and request the appropriate substantiation before the statute of limitations (usually the three-year period) ends. Once the statute has run out, the IRS normally cannot audit your return, and your expenses are insulated from examination.
3. Never file until the last minute, if you are concerned about a potential audit. It won't hurt and can only decrease your chances of being selected.
4. Plan your taxes to preempt an audit. If, say, you have a huge medical deduction for a year that you feel would increase your chances of being audited, attach copies of your medical bills to your return. Alternatively, if you made an unusually large charitable contribution, attach a copy of the check or receipts to your return. The IRS computer will still kick out your return, but when a real person looks at it, the reviewer will recognize that you know the rules. It may actually reduce your odds of a full audit.
The good news is, if you are audited one year with a refund or no change, it decreases your odds of being audited in subsequent years. In fact, if you are audited on the same items two years in a row with no additional taxes due, the IRS manual specifically recommends that they not audit you on the same items for the third year.
Jeff A. Schnepper, Esq., is the author of multiple books on finance and taxation, including How to Pay Zero Taxes in 2012, and all 28 previous editions of How to Pay Zero Taxes. He is a financial, tax, and legal advisor for Estate Planning of Delaware Valley and operates a tax, accounting, and legal practice in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Mr. Schnepper is Microsoft's MSN MONEY tax expert, an economics editor for USA Today, and tax counsel for Haran, Watson & Company.