Gene Barrett –
What sets off alarms at the IRS? The IRS only audits about 1% of all federal individual tax returns, while the other 99% go through unexamined. Nevertheless, it pays to keep in mind these 10 “red flags” that could increase the chance you’ll be targeted for an audit.
1. High income. The audit rate for 2011 tax returns, which was about 1.11% overall, shot to 3.93% for taxpayers with income of $200,000 or more. That’s almost one out of every 25 returns. The IRS tends to chase the “big money,” and while that’s no reason to earn less, you should realize that higher income exposes you to a greater audit risk.
2. Unreported income. The IRS computers match up the income listed on W-2 and 1099 forms with the income reported on individual returns. You’re likely to draw IRS scrutiny if you don’t report all of your taxable income or if you underreport the total, even if an omission is inadvertent. Check your tax forms to ensure the information is correct.
3. Large charitable gifts. Besides providing personal satisfaction, deductions for charitable gifts can offset highly taxed income on your return. But the IRS may become suspicious if the amount you deduct is disproportionate to your income. In particular, make sure that deductions for gifts of property are legitimate and include an independent appraisal when required.
4. Home office deductions. If you qualify, you can write off your direct costs of using part of your home as an office, plus a percentage of everyday living expenses such as property taxes, mortgage interest, utilities, phone bills, insurance, etc. But the basic rule is that you must use the office “regularly and exclusively” as your principal place of business. Simply doing work at home when your main office is elsewhere won’t cut it.
5. Rental real estate losses. Generally, “passive activity” rules prevent investors from deducting losses on rental real estate. But a special exception allows a loss deduction of up to $25,000 for “active participants,” subject to a phase-out between $100,000 and $150,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI). Another exception applies to qualified real estate professionals. The IRS may zero in on taxpayers claiming losses under either exception.
6. Travel and entertainment expenses. This is often a key audit target. IRS agents particularly look for self-employed individuals and other business owners who claim unusually large write-offs for travel and entertainment expenses and meals. Note that the tax law includes strict substantiation rules that must be followed in order to deduct any of these expenses.
7. Business use of cars. Another area ripe for abuse by taxpayers is the use of a vehicle for business purposes. The annual amount you can claim via depreciation deductions for the vehicle, based on percentage of business use, is limited by so-called “luxury car” rules. IRS agents have been trained to ferret out taxpayer records that don’t measure up. Another red flag is a claim for 100% business use of a vehicle, especially if another vehicle isn’t available for personal use.
8. Hobby losses. As a general rule, you can deduct expenses for a hobby only up to the amount of the income it produces. You normally can’t claim a loss for the activity, unless your involvement rises to a level of a bona fide business. Usually, an activity is presumed not to be a hobby if you show a profit in any three out of the past five years, but the IRS can refute this presumption.
9. Foreign bank accounts. The IRS has started clamping down on taxpayers with offshore accounts in “tax havens” in which banks do not disclose account information. Failure to report foreign income can trigger steep penalties and interest. If you have foreign bank accounts, make sure you properly report the income when you file your return.
10. Cash businesses. If you operate a small business in which you’re largely paid in cash—for example, if you own a car wash, restaurant or bar, or a hair or nail salon—the IRS is more likely to examine your return. Past history indicates that cash-heavy taxpayers may underreport their income or, in some cases, not report any income at all. Accordingly, the IRS remains on high alert.
These red flags don’t mean you should shy away from claiming the tax breaks you rightly deserve. Just be prepared to defend your turf if the IRS knocks on your door.