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Red flags that tempt the tax auditor

Kay Bell

TaxesTax Law Red Flags That Tempt The Tax Auditor

It is the most dreaded letter a taxpayer can receive.

Dear Taxpayer,

Some of the information that you provided to us does not agree with the information we received from other sources.

-- The Internal Revenue Service

You've just joined an elite club, one whose initiation ritual is an IRS audit. Unfortunately, you can't refuse membership -- and the dues could be astronomical.

When the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act was enacted in 1998, lawmakers ordered the agency to focus more on taxpayer rights instead of collection activities. Not surprisingly, the number of audits -- or examinations, as the agency prefers to call them -- dropped dramatically.

The first year of the kinder, gentler IRS, about 1 in 79 tax returns were audited. By 2003, it was even easier for tax scofflaws; that year, according to IRS data, only 1 in 150 individual taxpayers were audited.

Focus on richer taxpayers

The number of audits nowadays remains low. In fiscal year 2013, the IRS audited 1.4 million people. That's less than 1 percent of returns filed last year and the fewest audits in five years.

Even better news is that most of us aren't the target of IRS examiners. The tax collector has been focusing on the rich.

If you made less than $200,000 last year, your chance of being audited was just 0.88 percent. That's down from the 0.94 percent audit rate in fiscal year 2012.

Your audit odds increased if your income was between $200,000 and $1 million. Last year, 3.26 percent of returns filed by individuals in that income range were audited.

And if you made more than $1 million, almost 11 percent of returns got closer looks from IRS auditors.

Still, all those 2013 audit rates were down from the prior fiscal year.

The lower level of return examinations, however, is not just out of the goodness of Uncle Sam's heart.

Furloughs during last summer's sequestration and general budget cuts forced the IRS to pull back on some of its audit operations.

What's the DIF?

In addition to a filer's overall income, other figures also get auditors' attention.

When it comes to avoiding prying IRS eyes, it's best to be just one of the crowd. "Don't draw any more attention to your return than you need to," says Robert G. Nath, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Dealing with the IRS." "Simple, plain-vanilla returns are fairly safe."

The IRS says there are several ways a return can be selected for audit and the first is via the agency's computer-scoring system known as Discriminant Information Function, or DIF. The IRS evaluates tax returns based on IRS formulas, and DIF is based on deductions, credits and exemptions with norms for taxpayers in each of the income brackets.

The actual scoring formula to determine which tax returns are most likely to be in error is a closely guarded secret. But Nath, a tax attorney in the Washington, D.C., area, says it's no mystery the system is designed to screen for returns that could put more money in the government Treasury.

How do your deductions compare?

Tax experts believe one discriminant information function component looks at average deduction amounts. This allows IRS examiners to spot inconsistencies, such as a high mortgage interest deduction and low income.

Tax specialists at Wolters Kluwer CCH examined 2011 return statistics, the latest complete data, and came up with the following itemized deduction averages. These are for illustrative purposes only. CCH experts note that the IRS takes a dim view of taxpayers who base their claimed deductions on these figures. The numbers can be useful, however, in giving you a general idea as to whether certain deductions on your return might seem out of line.

Check average deduction amounts

Income range Medical expenses Taxes paid Interest paid Charitable contributions
Income range: $15,000-$30,000 Medical expenses: $7,838 Taxes paid: $3,249 Interest paid: $7,346 Charitable contributions: $2,127
Income range: $30,000-$50,000 Medical expenses: $6,943 Taxes paid: $3,988 Interest paid: $7,436 Charitable contributions: $2,287
Income range: $50,000-$100,000 Medical expenses: $7,376 Taxes paid: $6,235 Interest paid: $8,768 Charitable contributions: $2,881
Income range: $100,000-$200,000 Medical expenses: $10,003 Taxes paid: $10,835 Interest paid: $11,266 Charitable contributions: $3,890
Income range: $200,000-$250,000 Medical expenses: $16,814 Taxes paid: $18,083 Interest paid: $15,217 Charitable contributions: $5,703
Income range: More than $250,000 Medical expenses: $34,797 Taxes paid: $47,616 Interest paid: $20,685 Charitable contributions: $18,490

Allison Einbinder, owner of Dollars and Sense, a tax and accounting firm in Oakland, Calif., recommends that all filers review the differential comparisons. How you stack up against a national standard, she says, will give you an idea of whether the IRS might take a closer look at your return.

So what is likely to trigger a discriminant information function red flag?

  • Higher incomes.
  • Income other than basic wages; for example, contract payments.
  • Unreported income, such as investment returns.
  • Home-based businesses, especially when in addition to salary income, and home office deductions.
  • Noncash charitable deductions.
  • Large business meal and entertainment deductions.
  • Excessive business auto usage.
  • Losses from an activity that could be viewed as a hobby rather than a business.
  • Large casualty losses.

Returns claiming the earned income tax credit, designed as a tax break for lower-income wage earners, also catch IRS eyes. The credit's complexity often results in legitimate mistakes on returns. Some filers, however, have been caught making false claims to increase the payment the credit provides.

Schedule C filers who report a business loss also are likely to face more questions from the IRS. The agency wants to be sure that it was indeed the economy, and not an effort to trim taxes, that produced the bad business results.

Don't cheat yourself

But don't let fear of a potential audit discourage you from filing for tax credits or taking legitimate tax deductions.

Although some tax return actions are likely to flag your return, Nath says that doesn't necessarily mean you'll be audited.

Even if your return is questioned, it's not a foregone conclusion that you'll end up owing the IRS. As long as your deductions and expenses are legitimate and you have documentation, Nath says, they will be allowed.

The groundwork you put into preparing your return will pay off in an audit situation. "Be confident in what you entered," says Einbinder. "That's easy when you have good records to support your tax return entries."

And even if an audit doesn't go your way, don't despair. "You have rights to contest audits," Nath says, "at every level of the process." Read Bankrate's story on how to prepare for an audit in case you get summoned.

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