Reduce your chances of getting a second look from the IRS
1. It’s the 1% no one wants to be a part of: the share of Americans who get audited.
Taxpayers can get flagged for forgetting important forms, mixing up numbers and erroneously claiming tax breaks. Sometimes, one mistake can open the door for the IRS to take a closer look at the rest of the return, tax pros say. “You don’t want to go through that headache,” says Paul Gevertzman, a partner at Anchin, Block & Anchin, an accounting firm in New York City.
That said, most taxpayers can stay in the clear if they report their income honestly and have the proper documentation. And while there is no such thing as “audit-proofing” a return, taxpayers can take steps to reduce their chances of facing extra scrutiny from Uncle Sam.
Here are 7 things you can do to avoid getting audited.
3. Report all of your income
Self-employed taxpayers need to be careful when claiming tax breaks and writing off business expenses if they don’t want to get a double-take from the IRS. Taxpayers often forget, for instance, that only 50% of business meal and entertainment expenses can be deducted, and they must be identified as business costs. People looking to write off travel expenses should keep logs of business trips and visits made to clients to work-related travel costs from those incurred on personal trips. And even though the IRS has introduced a simplified option for claiming the home office deduction, the office still has to meet the main requirement of being used exclusively for business and of being the main place of business. That means that if the children are using the room to play games or watch TV, the office gets disqualified, says Lauridsen.
Families who find they need to hire someone like a nanny or a home health aide may be more focused on their daily chores than the IRS, but the decision could come with added tax responsibilities. Such workers need to be reported properly to the IRS and families may need to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes and to withhold the worker’s share of those taxes just like any employer, says Stephanie Breedlove, vice president of Care.com HomePay, a company that helps families handle payroll taxes and labor law. The rules apply to anyone who was paid more than $1,800 last year or $1,900 this year. Often, families don’t realize their error until they’ve parted ways with the nanny and he or she tries to file for unemployment benefits and state authorities learn the person was paid off the books, says Breedlove. Those families then need to pay any back taxes and penalties owed and could be found guilty of tax evasion, she says. Families should also avoid incorrectly listing the nanny as an employee of a small business they may own, which could lead to an exaggeration of business credits and deductions.
Also see: Caring for a relative? The tax code could help you
Tax pros say that many taxpayers forget to write off furniture, clothing and other items they donate to charity. But claiming those items incorrectly or exaggerating their value could get a return flagged by the IRS. Clothes and home appliances must be valued at their thrift store prices and not their original sale prices, says Lauridsen of the AICPA. “People have a tendency to be emotionally attached to their things so they have a tendency to over value them when they’re doing charitable contributions,” she says. Salvation Army and Goodwill offer guides to help donors determine the value of certain items. Pricier items like paintings, homes and land need to be appraised at the time of donation. Donated cars, which are likely to be sold by charitable organizations, will be valued based on the price that the group gets for selling the car.
Also read: 7 tax breaks you’re overlooking
Some people may try to write off losses they’ve incurred from a side business like horse breeding or a small business making and selling hand crafted toys. But the IRS requires taxpayers to show they’re going into these ventures with the intention of making a profit. If they lose money year after year, the IRS prohibits taxpayers from using those losses to offset other income unless they can show they made a profit in at least 3 of the last 5 tax years, or 2 of the last 7 tax years. The IRS also looks to see if taxpayers are making changes to try to make the venture profitable and if they depend on that income to live on. “ You’ve got to show why it’s still a business,” says Gevertzman. Those who don’t make a good case may be suspected of investing in the hobby solely for the purpose of creating a loss that could be used to reduce their tax bill—and they could owe penalties and interest for any taxes they underpaid in the past.