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Tax Tips

What Are the Odds the IRS Will Audit Your Tax Return? And What Should You Do If It Does?

The president's odds of an audit? 100%. What are yours?


Tax audits are in the news more than usual this year, since Donald Trump says the fact that he’s being audited by the IRS prevents him from releasing his returns as part of his quest for the presidency.

TOOL: Pinpoint Your Audit Odds

But if being audited blocked the release of a tax return, we never would have seen Barack Obama’s or George W. Bush’s or Bill Clinton’s or any other recent president’s. Even Richard Nixon released his returns while they were being audited (the fact that that return led to the House Judiciary Committee approving an Article of Impeachment against Nixon is another story).

Why? Because when it comes to the odds of being audited, one thing is crystal clear: If you’re living in the White House, your odds are 100%. The returns of the president (and the veep) get the going over every year, as required by section of the Internal Revenue Manual.


As the head of the IRS, John Koskinen, told us earlier this year, “So, you know, anyone running for president or who’s going to be president can look forward to having their tax returns audited every year.”

Assuming you’re not aiming to run the free world, though, what are your odds of being audited . . . and what should you do if you are?

This is the quintessential good-news/bad-news story.

The good news: If you’re worried that the tax return you just sent to the IRS will be audited, breathe easy. Koskinen is telling anyone who will listen that budget cuts have severely limited the agency's ability to review returns for accuracy. Audit rates for individual tax returns fell last year to the lowest level in a decade ... and will fall even more this year.


The bad news: If you’re an honest taxpayer, you’ll be disappointed to learn that the IRS says that every $1 it spends on audits and other “enforcement” activities brings in $4 to the U.S. Treasury. Falling audit rates mean dishonest taxpayers will be allowed to keep billions of dollars they ought to be paying in taxes.

But just what are the chances you’ll be audited, that your Form 1040 or 1040-A or 1040-EZ will be plucked from the 140 million-plus returns for a going over?

Clearly, the odds are reassuring. The vast majority (more than 99%, in fact) of individual income tax returns skate safely past the IRS audit machine.

Better news: The 1-in-119 chance of being called on the carpet vastly overstates the severity of the situation. More than three-quarters of all audits are handled by mail, not by mano a mano combat with an IRS agent during an office examination or a field audit. And if your return doesn't include income from a business, rental real estate or a farm, or employee business expense write-offs or earned income credit, the basic 1-in-119 chance of being challenged dwindles to about 1-in-330.


Another piece of rarely reported good news: Each year, tens of thousands of taxpayers walk out of an audit with a check from the government. In 2015, for example, almost 40,000 audits resulted in refunds totaling nearly $1.1 billion. And 9% of field audits and 12% of correspondent audits end with the conclusion that everything is hunky-dory: no change in what the taxpayer owes Uncle Sam.

The 1-in-119 chance of being audited is the overall average from last year. As noted above, there’s an even smaller chance this year. But in any year, your personal odds turn on the kind of return you file and the type of income you report.

Our calculator, based on official IRS data on returns audited in 2015, will give you a good idea of the odds that your personal Form 1040 (or 1040-A or 1040-EZ) will be selected for review—either by mail or in person. And, remember, even if it is, there's a decent chance you'll walk away unscathed or be one of the lucky ones whose audit results in a refund.

With few exceptions, of course, the IRS doesn't randomly choose which returns to audit, although random reviews are used to help the IRS calibrate the computers that identify the juiciest targets.


Over the next few months, the IRS will be plugging data from more than 140 million 2015 tax returns into a computer that scrutinizes the numbers every which way and ponders how the picture you paint of your financial life jibes with what it knows about other taxpayers. The computer tries to spot returns that are most likely to produce extra tax if put through the audit wringer. The computer's choices are reviewed by a human being who can overrule them if, for example, an attachment to your return satisfactorily explains the entry that set the computer all atwitter. Short of such a veto, your name will go on the list.

See Also: 15 IRS Audit Red Flags

Even if your return survives the computer's scrutiny, you're not necessarily safe. You may have listed an investment in a tax shelter the IRS is particularly interested in, for example, or the agency might decide to take a closer look at your return because it smells of the latest scam du jour identified by the IRS.

And there's always the chance that someone has fingered you as a tax cheat. The IRS encourages such tips and even pays a bounty for leads that pay off in extra tax.

Don't Panic

Whatever the reason you're chosen for an audit, it's chilling to get the word that the IRS wants to examine your return. After all, everyone knows that the IRS was able to do what J. Edgar Hoover and all the G-men of the FBI couldn't do: put Al Capone behind bars. Even if you have no reason to think you did anything wrong, you can't escape the anxiety that accompanies an audit notice. For one thing, the return being audited is unlikely to be the one you just filed. A lot of taxpayers are only now hearing from the IRS about their 2014 returns ... and some 2013 returns are just coming up to bat. (Generally, the IRS has three years from the due date of your return—until April 15, 2019, for 2015 returns—to initiate an audit.)

How It All Begins

You'll get a letter announcing your fate. The simplest audit—a correspondence audit—requires only that you mail in the records needed to verify a specified claim on your return. In a field audit, an IRS agent comes to your home or place of business to go over your records. Most common face-to-face meetings, though, come during office audits, which involve getting yourself to a local IRS office. You'll probably have at least a couple of weeks to prepare. If the appointment is set for an inconvenient time or you find that you'll need extra time to pull your records together, call the IRS as soon as possible to request that the audit be rescheduled.

The written notice will identify the items on your return that are being questioned—usually such broad categories as employee business expenses or casualty losses—and outline the types of records you'll need to clear up the matter. Office audits are usually limited to two or three issues, so you won't be expected to haul in all your records. What kind of evidence do you need? Here's what a retired IRS official with 30 years of auditing experience said when we asked him that question: "I expect to see the records you used when you prepared the tax return. You must have had some. Otherwise, how did you know you gave $5,000 to charity?"

Also, be aware that auditors are sometimes looking for more than proof of what's on your return. They're also interested in whether income that should have been reported was left off. That could mean a review of your bank records, for instance, in search of deposits that might represent unreported income.

Audit Yourself

The best way to begin preparing for your meeting is to pull out your copy of the return being audited. Before the IRS puts your forms to the test, do the deed yourself. Pore over the items being questioned and pull together the documents that support your entries. Of course there will be gaps, but don't automatically concede defeat. Try to reconstruct missing records.

—If, as luck would have it, you can't find the return, call the IRS office that contacted you and ask how to get a copy.
—Get copies of canceled checks from the bank or duplicates of receipts or written statements from individuals who can back up your claims.
—If you can't come up with written evidence for certain entries, prepare an oral explanation.

Your records needn't be perfect. If you can reasonably explain how you came up with a figure that's not fully corroborated by the evidence, the IRS may well accept it. The IRS likes to stress how reasonable audit personnel are. However, when you're pulling together your records, remember this: The more thorough your documentation is in general, the more likely an auditor will cut you some slack on an occasional point.

Do You Need Help?

You don't have to go to the audit at all. You can avoid it by hiring someone to go in your place. Such a representative must have written authorization to act for you, and the IRS provides a power-of-attorney form—Form 2848—for this purpose. Whether you go alone or hire a representative to go with you or in your place depends primarily on the issues involved. If they're relatively simple, cut-and-dried matters, you may be able to settle things without help. When matters are more technical or require interpretation of the law, however, it's more likely you'll need assistance. You have to make this judgment, and it will turn in part on how you feel about going head to head with the IRS. If you're scared, by all means get someone to go with you or in your place.

If someone else prepared your return, let him or her know about the audit and ask for tips on how to get ready for it. Whether you want this person to go along may depend on how much that would cost. Although the IRS prefers to wrap up cases with one meeting, if you don't agree with the auditor's conclusions or need time to round up extra evidence, you can schedule a follow-up meeting. Unless you fear you might capitulate if you go to the audit alone, you may want to try to settle as many issues as you can by yourself. If disagreements remain and the amount of money at stake justifies the expense, you can take an adviser along to the next session. That way you'll have help when you really need it but won't have to pay for hand-holding while you clear up routine matters. And note this: The Taxpayer Bill of Rights gives you the right to stop an audit in its tracks if you decide you want representation. If the audit begins to veer off of the topics you are prepared to discuss, for example, you can call a halt to the proceedings and seek help if you need it.

The Big Day

The key to success is being well prepared. Forget the old slapstick routine of dumping a box of canceled checks and ratty receipts on the auditor's desk. That suggests your records are sloppy, and that's the last impression you want to give. Remember, it's up to you to back up the information on your return. The better organized your records, the more smoothly things will go.

Establish credibility right from the start. If you do, there's a better chance a gap later may be overlooked. Say that the audit notice states that your interest deductions, charitable contributions, and travel and entertainment write-offs will be reviewed. If you're solid on interest and contributions but shaky on T&E, try to steer the audit to your strong suits first.

Don't go into the session looking for a fight, but don't equate being cooperative with giving in whenever the auditor raises an eyebrow, either. If the agent tells you your records don't substantiate a deduction, for example, ask what might suffice. Perhaps you can mail it in later.

Don't chat your way into a problem. Keep in mind that the agent is trained to zero in on tax issues. A comment you consider totally unrelated to your return might lead you into a thicket. Defending a deduction by saying you've taken it in the past, for example, could prompt a review of previously filed returns; discussing the family's cross-country driving vacation might lead the agent to recalculate the ratio of business/personal miles for your car; or bemoaning the problems that led a child to drop out of college could cost you a dependency exemption. Fear that taxpayers will talk themselves into trouble is the key reason many advisers recommend sending a representative to the audit rather than showing up in person.

Cutting a Deal—or Not

If you do go, above all, keep your wits about you. Don't be pressured into settling an issue just to bring the audit to an end. The IRS argues strenuously that it doesn't judge its agents on how much extra money their audits produce. Even so, the fact is that one of the best guides to an agent's efficiency is the amount of additional tax he or she generates without going through all the formal assessment procedures or litigation.

Calculator: Check Your Audit Risk

Also remember that there may be room for compromise on the issue at hand. It may save time and money all around to agree on some in-between point or even for one side to give up on one disputed item in order to win on another.

Most office audits take a few hours. You'll spend a lot of that time watching the agent crunch numbers. When it's over, you'll get the auditor's decision—usually that you owe more tax. He or she should explain each proposed change to your return and the reason for it.

If you agree, that's fine. But remember that the auditor doesn't have the final say. The latest statistics show, in fact, that of nearly 1.4 million audits last year, nearly 28,000 taxpayers disagreed with the auditors’ findings and disputed $7.4 billion of suggested additional tax. If you disagree with a finding, tell the auditor so and restate your position. He or she may be willing to compromise to close the case promptly.

You have several options if you opt to fight on. Even if you've handled things by yourself so far, at this point you may need professional help. You can ask for another meeting with the auditor to present additional evidence, or you can make an informal appeal to the auditor's boss. If you're still unhappy, you can go to the IRS regional appeal level. Or you can take your case to court.