When actual good news arrives from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, it certainly should be given a full public airing.
That's the case with the latest IRS Data Book, where federal government tax audits were down 16% last year, from 1.2 million in 2015 to 1.0 million in 2016.
What's more, the actual percentage of individual tax filers targeted for an audit stand at 10-year lows (at 0.7% of all U.S. tax filers, according to the Data Book.) Still, given the fact that Uncle Sam processed 244 million returns in the period covered by the report, that means millions of Americans will face an audit in the coming year, and they'd do well to be ready for the experience.
That's the case even as audits are slipping as the 2017 tax deadline beckons.
"Funding for the IRS is off as the agency has to contend with a lack of manpower this year," notes Robert Finkel, partner and co-chair of the Tax Practice Group at the law firm of Moritt Hock & Hamroff, in New York City. "That said, people should still be aware that there will be eyes on the returns. This is because the technology that the IRS is using has become very enhanced during the past few years. Overall, the federal government is getting smarter on its ability to evaluate tax returns with advanced technological tools."
Additionally, some tax consumers are targeted in greater frequencies than others, and those in the "higher percentile" categories should know they're at higher risk of an audit than the rest of the population.
"IRS audits are down in general, but with certain types of taxpayers they are up," states Vincenzo Villamena, managing partner at Online Taxman, a CPA firm that aids small business owners, US expats and other tax filers in special situations. Villamena says that expats and other international tax payers are at "higher risk" than the general population, and should be extra cautious in their tax filings.
If you are targeted for an audit, get a grip and focus on being as prepared - and as transparent, as possible. The first step is to take a few deep breaths and try to avoid becoming too unnerved by the news.
"Take a few deep breaths and try to avoid becoming too unnerved by the news," says George Connelly, an attorney with the Tax Controversy practice at Chamberlain Hrdlicka, a national law firm based in Houston. "The second step is to gather all the information used in the return. Then, make sure to get some expert advice that you can trust."
Vincent Porter, founder of Porter & Company CPAs, in Arlington, Texas, advises hiring a tax professional like a CPA or an attorney with experience in dealing with the IRS. "That can save a lot of time in dealing with an agent and prevent other items from being audited that weren't part of the original IRS inquiry," Porter says.
When the actual audit is underway, make sure to only answer the questions being asked, and don't divulge information you weren't asked. "Added information can lead to other tax items in your return or other years to be included in the audit that weren't originally in question," Porter adds
Also, be upfront and forthcoming about an issue where you don't have the correct information. "If you discover an error in preparing for the audit then share that with the auditor," he adds. "If you let them find the error then it will raise suspicion that you are hiding things or unfamiliar with tax law, and that can give the auditor reason to dig in further."
"That's why it's important to be very organized and provide the documentation in a clear easy to find format," Porter states. "The quicker an IRS agent can find their answer, the quicker they move on."
Chances are the IRS won't be targeting you for an audit anytime soon, if ever. But even with audits down, never say never, and always practice solid, thorough and transparent tax habits.
Because if you are the subject of an audit, those habits can get you in the clear before any real financial damage is done.