Millions of Americans filed their 2020 taxes and a handful of some will be picked out to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service.
In 2019, 0.45% of the individual tax returns were audited, according to agency data. The rate of audits per year has significantly dropped in the last decade due to staff and budget cuts. But certain red flags may make you more likely to fall into that unfortunate group, experts said.
If the IRS sends you an adjustment letter when you made a miscalculation or underreported small amounts of your income, this is not an audit. A correspondence audit — the lowest form of an audit and not a full examination — is performed via mail and may require you to provide additional information. But a correspondence audit can turn into an in-person audit if the issues become more complex.
Here are five ways to avoid tax scenarios that catch the IRS’s attention in the first place.
- Underreporting income – Underreporting income would be the first red flag. Unintentionally leaving out a small portion of your income may not get you audited. But if there’s a bigger discrepancy between the income you actually earned and what you reported on your return — and if it’s intentional — chances are higher that you may get audited.
- Overstating your tax deductions – Whether you’re claiming business tax deductions like meal and entertainment expenses or personal ones like charitable donations, you may hear from the IRS if the claimed amount seems off based on your income. The IRS system that roots out suspicious tax returns may flag a return that has deductions that are too high for the reported income level. Additionally, mixing business and personal expenses can be a red flag for the IRS. Some small business tax deductions that could pose a problem if disproportionate to your income are expenses for vehicles, home office, meals, and entertainment, among others.
- High-income earner – if you are in a higher income bracket, your chances of being audited increase. While the overall audit rate for 2018 was 0.6%, the chances of being audited was much higher for high-income earners. Taxpayers reporting income from $500,000 to $1,000,000 were almost twice as likely to be audited at 1.1%. That rate went up to 2.2% for taxpayers making from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. Those earning $5,000,000 to $10,000,000 saw an audit rate of 4.2%, while those making above that threshold saw the highest rate of 6.7%.
- Claiming a dependent – Only one parent is allowed to claim a child on their taxes, even if the parents are filing their taxes separately. The IRS may send an audit letter to determine which taxpayer is entitled to claim the child as a dependent. A child can be claimed as a dependent if the child is under the age of 19 or is a full-time student under the age of 24 and lives with you for more than six months of the calendar year.
- Foreign accounts and income – Failing to report a foreign financial asset like a bank account, brokerage, or mutual fund may also bring the IRS knocking. If you hold foreign assets worth over $50,000 for a single filer and $100,000 for joint filers, you must fill out Form 8938, identifying the institution where the assets are held and the highest value of those assets in the last year. Additionally, if you take the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion break, the IRS may carefully review your return for any discrepancies. U.S. citizens who are bona fide residents of a foreign country can exclude up to $107,600 of their 2020 income if they were in that country for at least 330 full days during any period of 12 consecutive months.