Audit Red Flags

How to Avoid an IRS Examination

Audit Red Flags
April 8, 2016

What two words cause the most panic to Americans? There are probably a hundred funny responses running through your mind right now, but we were thinking of a less humorous response: “IRS audit.”

Your odds of avoiding an audit are usually pretty good. The IRS reviewed 1.23 million tax returns in 2015, resulting in an audit rate of 0.84%, the lowest rate since 2004.

However, there are some red flags that are likely to increase your odds of being audited. Some of these cannot be avoided, but others are essentially errors in judgment.

  • You Are Wealthy – The IRS disproportionately audits wealthier Americans. Why? As the famous bank robber Willie Sutton allegedly said, “Because that’s where the money is.” Think of it as a return on investment of IRS time.

  • While there may be an element of ROI involved, there are also more benign reasons. Wealthier Americans have more potential deductions and tax shelters to claim and more complicated tax forms in general, thus it is reasonable that their forms receive more scrutiny.
    Taxpayers with incomes over $10 million had a more than 16% chance of being audited; $5 million draws a 10.53% chance of an audit (using 2014 statistics). You are least likely to be audited if your adjusted gross income is between $75,000 and $100,000 (0.52%).

  • Low or No Reported Income – So much for the Willie Sutton theory. Low incomes receive more scrutiny to verify that the Earned Income Tax Credit is not being falsely claimed and that income is not being underreported. Over 5% of the taxpayers reporting no income in 2014 were audited by the IRS.


  • Mismatching Income – Discrepancies between W-2/1099 forms and your reported income are easily picked up by the IRS computers. Make sure that all of your taxable income is reported and matches your forms.

  • Disproportionate Charitable Contributions – Expect an audit if you made contributions that are out of line with your average income range, failed to file a Form 8283 with your larger donations, or made a one-off large contribution such as a donation of property to a charity.

  • Home Office Deductions – The definition of a “home office” is stretched often enough that it tends to receive a closer examination. Make sure you meet the “exclusive and regular” business use requirement and be prepared to prove it.

  • Calling a Hobby a Business – Continually unprofitable home businesses are likely to be considered as hobbies by the IRS (and really should be, if the business is truly unprofitable). The general rule is that the venture must earn a profit in three out of the five previous years to be truly considered a business.

  • Holding Foreign Bank Accounts – Thanks to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, overseas accounts require notifications to the Treasury Department and other paperwork depending on the size and nature of the accounts. Make sure all necessary paperwork is filed in a timely fashion – and even then, expect an audit if your account resides in a known tax haven.

  • Excessive Business Deductions – IRS agents are quite adept at spotting sketchy business deductions where lines are blurred between personal and business expenses or the amounts seem excessive. Be prepared to defend all the business deductions you claim.

  • Multiple Deduction Claims for Children – Divorced couples do not always agree on who should claim their children as dependents, and only one can do so. If the same child’s Social Security number ends up on two different returns, guess what will happen?

To any IRS agents who may be reading this article, we actually appreciate your service…and we were just kidding about the Willie Sutton remarks. Please don’t audit us.


Photo ©iStock.com/designer491

  Conversation   |   10 Comments

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Carla Truett | 04.08.16 @ 18:49
This is a great list to have. I surely don't want to get flagged by the IRS.
Elaine | 04.08.16 @ 18:55
His has been one of my concerns so thanks so much for this list. Hopefully I will never have to deal with it but now I know the flags.
Selena Walls | 04.08.16 @ 18:58
I filed divorced for the first time this year. My ex is supposed to be able to claim our son, while I got to claim our two daughters. He keeps going back and forth on if he is even able to file taxes this year, because he is on SSI, so it looks like there is a very good chance no one is claiming our son this year.
Erin | 04.08.16 @ 18:59
Good information to have. I hate the thought of being audited, but this looks like a pretty simple list to have on hand to make sure we're not making any silly mistakes.
brittany.martinez530 | 04.08.16 @ 18:59
This is a wonderful list of red flags. things like this are much appreciated.
Kailie | 04.08.16 @ 19:01
This is a great list of things for people to know, it helps take off some of the stress of worrying.
Sarah | 04.08.16 @ 19:02
knowing the most common flags is cool. knew about some but not all these. thanks
Kyle | 04.08.16 @ 19:02
This is one of those things that I have always worried and stressed out over, so this is a great list.
Jane | 04.08.16 @ 19:03
Wow, I didn't know that low or no reported income would raise a red flag. This is good to know for my younger family members who work only part-time. If they get audited, they won't need to be afraid of going to jail as long as they were truthful about their income. This is a great list of what the IRS looks for regarding doing audits of tax returns.
trish | 04.08.16 @ 19:07
Biggest fear. We don't even earn much, but fear of the audit is strong! We even have an account to do our taxes for us, so I know it wouldn't be our fault, but still nervous! Great to have set with my taxes to give me that extra security of not missing anything!
$commenter.renderDisplayableName() | 12.08.16 @ 12:02
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