Beware: These Tax Return Red Flags Could Catch the Eye of the IRS

Tax time can be one of the most hated times of the year. Just preparing the forms is enough to be an irritant, and if you owe the government money there’s a good chance that you’re downright annoyed. But neither of those things compare to the feeling that accompanies an envelope bearing an IRS return address, alerting you to the fact that your taxes are about to be audited.

The truth is that audits are relatively rare in the United States. As much as people fear them, the IRS reports that between 2010 and 2018 only 0.6% of individual tax returns resulted in an audit. That may make you feel better, but statistically speaking that still means that more than 250,000 taxpayers had to go through the process. In many cases the audit process could have been avoided had the taxpayers simply known what we’re about to spell out for you – that there are specific triggers that send up IRS red flags and frequently lead to an audit process.

The red flags include:

Disparities Between Information on Tax Forms and Reported Income
Whether you’re a W-2 employee or self-employed, the IRS will compare the income information that you report on your tax forms with the W-2 and 1099 forms that are sent by those individuals and entities that have paid you. If the two don’t match, the IRS is going to want to know why.

Disparities Between Business Income and Business Expenses
Just as the IRS will respond when your tax form income and reported income don’t match, the same is true for businesses that report business expenses that don’t make sense. In some cases, they are looking for people who are trying to take business expense deductions for what is really a hobby rather than a business. Many times these disparities are the result of actual expenses incurred for which income went unreported. Though there is always the chance that the odd numbers are an accident, such as the result of duplication of employee and business expenses, that oversight can lead to the discomfort of an audit, so take the time to double and triple check before filing your tax forms.

Outsized Charitable Contributions
Our tax system awards charitable contributions with tax deductions, and though that has proven to be a powerful incentive for some, it has also served as a temptation. To counter this, the IRS has created an automated computer program that analyzes nearly every return to identify figures that seem outsized as compared to an individual’s income, as well as other factors that are commonly abused. The system assesses each return based on numerous factors and assigns a DIF, or Discriminate Function, score. If your return exceeds the IRS DIF score threshold, there’s a good chance you’re headed for an audit.

Disparities Between Lifestyle Expenses and Reported Income
As with other mismatches found on tax returns, the IRS is particularly sensitive to returns in which taxpayers take deductions for expenses reflective of a high income living and yet report income that is much more modest. Paying personal property taxes, real estate taxes and taking mortgage interest deductions for million-dollar lifestyles will raise a red flag if the income you’re reporting is not enough to support it.

When You Happen to Hit Right on the Income to Expense Ratio You Need to Qualify for the Earned Income Credit
To claim the Earned Income Credit — which can be as high as $6,660 for tax year 2020 — taxpayers’ income has to be below a certain level, and if you’re a business owner whose return includes a Schedule C to prove all offsetting expenses, there is a particular ratio that you need to achieve in order to qualify. In most cases a business will either be somewhere below the ratio or above the ratio: They’ll either qualify for a larger earned income credit or they won’t. If the number hits exactly at the level needed to qualify for the larger credit, the IRS is more likely to ask for a closer look to see if numbers on either side of the equation have been manipulated.

Disproportionate Itemized Deductions
If you qualify to itemize, then you’re entitled to take deductions for qualifying expenses. But in cases where itemized deductions seem disproportionately high, the IRS is likely to ask some questions. If the expenses are legitimate and you’re able to present documentation, you’ll be fine, but make sure that you hold onto all receipts, as there’s a good chance that you’ll be called in for an audit.

One important thing to remember: You may have been able to deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses in the past, but that stopped being true for federal income taxes after tax year 2017. Some states, including California, still permit those deductions on state taxes, so make sure that you maintain receipts for those returns as well.

Lapses in Reporting Cryptocurrency Transactions
Bitcoin and other virtual currency transactions have led to plenty of tax return headaches, as in the last several years approximately 10,000 taxpayers have failed to report gains or losses on this innovative currency. To address the issue, the IRS has taken to sending taxpayers letters providing a chance to take part in a voluntary disclosure program. The agency is clearly on the watch for and acting upon this particular red flag. In addition, the IRS has added a question to the 1040: “Did you receive, sell, send, exchange, or otherwise acquire any financial interest in any virtual currency?” Of course, if you answer no and later it is determined you did, then you have committed perjury since you sign your return under penalty of perjury.

Rental Property Expenses that Appear to be Inflated
One of the most common reasons for tax returns to be flagged is rental expenses that appear to be inflated. Taxpayers who prepare their own returns and who report deductions for rental income on their Schedule E need to ensure that they fully understand that some deductions are allowed and some need to be capitalized over time, as not knowing which is which could lead to a return being flagged. There are also special and rather complicated rules associated with renting a vacation home, room rentals and short-term rentals.

Two People Claiming the Same Dependent
It is not at all uncommon for families that split custody of a dependent as a result of separation or divorce to alternate the years in which they claim a dependent, but if mistakes – or fraud - are detected and both are claiming the same individual, that will be sure to trigger an audit. Proving custody will require documentation, including school records and birth certificates.

Not Understanding Which Filing Status to Use
Though the head of household filing status is extremely useful, it can also be confusing and lead to mistakes when filling out status, and especially regarding how dependents are treated. Though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was supposed to simplify the tax form process, in this particular area it made things even more complicated by introducing a new $500 credit for ‘qualifying relatives’, which is defined by certain tests that may make people not related to the taxpayer eligible as a dependent while not making the taxpayer eligible for the head of household filing status.

Failure to Report Overseas Accounts
Whether it generates taxable income or not, if you are a U.S. citizen or U.S. resident with interest in, authority over, or signature authority on foreign financial accounts that exceed $10,000 at any time during the calendar year, you are required to report them to the U.S. Treasury Department under the Bank Secrecy Act. The appropriate form to be filed is the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, or FBAR. Failing to disclose these accounts can have significant repercussions and are likely to be discovered as a result of disclosure requirements placed on foreign financial institutions.

In Case of Audit
The goal of providing this information is to fend off the possibility of red flags ever being raised on your tax filing. However, if one of those envelopes with the IRS return address appears in your mailbox, contact us immediately.


Share this article...

Sign up for our newsletter.

Each month, we will send you a roundup of our latest blog content covering the tax and accounting tips & insights you need to know.

I confirm this is a service inquiry and not an advertising message or solicitation. By clicking “Submit”, I acknowledge and agree to the creation of an account and to the and .
I consent to receive SMS messages

We care about the protection of your data.