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Stay Calm and Survive Your Own Audit Horror Story

Alliantgroup's Harris (on finding good professional help tax help for an audit)

The key takeaway is that a qualified audit representation team should be not only knowledgeable on taxes, but also skilled in building out the information and preparing a persuasive presentation of the facts and law, as well as seeing the matter through the administrative process and, if necessary, the courts.

We find that in many cases prior tax professionals:

  • Failed to be educated and understand the examination process as it relates to planning, execution and resolution of the audit, resulting in an unpleasant, disjointed, stress-filled and distrustful interaction with the audit team.
  • Failed to be pro-active and engage the audit team, which proved to be against the best interest of the taxpayer and would have produced a less than desirable result had they not reached out to different representation.

The key, Harris, is finding a tax professional who knows how to work with the IRS, who can engage in full "transparency" with the auditors (the IRS loves transparency, he says) and who is open to seeing things through the lens of the IRS. Do that and you're well on your way to surviving an audit.

Larry M. Elkin, president of Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Don't always assume the tax authorities are correct.

Federal and state tax offices send out huge numbers of notices advising taxpayers they owe money. Most result from simple data or reporting errors the tax authorities believe you made; if you gathered your tax information carefully and had someone competent prepare your return, there is a good chance the notice is incorrect.

Do not just pay the bill. Check the facts first, or ask your tax preparer to investigate. If the tax authorities' figure is wrong and yours is correct, you should be able to clear up the matter without difficulty.

With field audits, when the IRS or your state agency goes through your records with a fine-toothed comb, the situation is far more complex and you may have more cause to worry

Field agents may seem to make up rules that are not in the tax code or regulations. That's because they are typically some of the least-experienced and least-trained personnel on enforcement staff; those with greater knowledge tend to be promoted to review-level positions.

The audit process works best when it is limited to issues the auditor raises. An effective taxpayer representative (usually a CPA, attorney or IRS-authorized enrolled agent) will find out what the auditor wants to know, gather the information and present it clearly and concisely without triggering collateral issues -- and often without you present.

Remember, skilled professional representation is expensive, and your representative does not control how many hours the audit will consume -- the auditor does. Auditors do not care how much they cost you in professional fees. Sometimes tax authorities seem to have a pretty good idea how much it will cost a taxpayer to appeal or litigate a dispute and offer to settle for about the same amount. It may be worth accepting such an offer if the auditor raises a valid point.

Whatever you do, Elkins says, don't represent yourself.

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