Beware of the “Turbo Tax audit”

With advancements in tax software and technology, it’s rare to find tax returns that are filled out by hand; without the assistance of a tax preparer or tax preparation software. These advancements have given rise to a whole market of self-preparation software. The most popular is Turbo Tax, but there are others.

With the popularity of these self-preparation tools and software, have come the aftermath, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax audit. I personally like self-preparation tax software tools, like Turbo Tax, because they have led to business for me in what IRS examiners refer to as a “Turbo Tax Audit”. The key with the do-it-yourself software is whether you, the tax preparer, know what you’re doing because you don’t get the professional representation you didn’t pay for.

The software is advertised as easy to use and typically uses question and answer formats. To prepare your tax return, you answer questions posed by the tax preparation software, and plug in your data, and then your taxes are done. When there is trouble, it’s usually rooted in whether the tax preparer (you), answered the questions correctly for the purposes of the tax return. Because the computer software doesn’t know you or your situation, this is where you need to have some knowledge of taxes in general to ensure that you’re not taken on a path that will lead you to an appointment with my office, and eventually the IRS.

The self-preparation software sometimes offers “audit protection.” However, be sure to read the fine print as to the limitations and conditions of such “protection” should you want it, as there may be circumstances where your audit “insurance” is not covered. And, you’re again in my office or facing the IRS alone.

Vengeful Audit Paranoia

People who get audited often feel like they have been unfairly targeted by the IRS.  Many of our clients have felt this way.  When the tax audit notice comes, they immediately review their past dealings with the IRS, trying to figure out why they have been audited and what they did to upset the IRS.  Some of the more paranoid audit victims will go back and mentally review all their dealings with any branch of the government, assuming that they were selected in an act of revenge.  I suppose it is human nature that causes them to wonder and question why they, of all people, were selected for audit.

Bill Elliot is a high-profile example of this “vengeful audit paranoia.”  He was audited after appearing on FOX News earlier this month where he criticized ObamaCare and told the nation about his health insurance policy being cancelled.  He couldn’t afford the new premiums offered in the federal health insurance marketplace and needs insurance probably more than the average person given that he is battling cancer.

We can’t know for sure whether Mr. Elliot was targeted by the IRS.  We know some of their audit selection criteria, and there are probably others that we don’t know.  People are also audited at least in part based on chance.  I don’t know of any confirmed “vengeful audits,” but maybe that’s the next IRS scandal

How long should you keep your tax records?

It’s now summertime, officially, and you still haven’t finished your spring cleaning. So, what tax records do you need to keep while catching up on your spring cleaning this summer? You need to give some thought before throwing out those old tax records.

What tax records should I keep?

This question requires an analysis of why you would need any of your tax records, other than shoe box filler of course. If you’re “lucky” enough to have your tax returns audited by the government, the burden of proof will be yours to substantiate the entries, deductions, and statements on your tax return. This is the primary reason for keeping your tax records. Therefore, the records you need to hang on to are the documents that you used, or should have used, to prepare your tax returns. This often includes, among other things, receipts, cancelled checks, bank statements, income statements, repair statements, mileage logs, withdrawal statements, and property transfer closing paperwork.

How long do I need to keep my tax records?

This is really a question of, how long is the government allowed to pester you for verification of the representations on your tax returns. If you file a federal income tax return, you will you need to keep your tax records for three years from the date the tax return was due, or the date the tax return was filed, whichever is later. However some states, such as California for example, may audit your records longer than the IRS can; so you will need to check your state’s rules to verify how much longer you need to keep your records depending on which state tax return(s) you file.

There are exceptions to the IRS’ three year rule that require you to keep records for longer than the three year period. These exceptions include when you don’t file a tax return, when you understate your income, or when you file a fraudulent return. Ironically, if you fall into one of these categories, you likely don’t have accurate records to begin with; so the government truly has you on the hook for a serious tax problem longer than taxpayers who keep accurate records. It’s also generally a good idea to keep tax returns and supporting documentation for the tax years when you acquire or transfer property that may be used to calculate gains or losses on a future tax return. And of course, there may be non-tax reasons to keep documentation accessible longer than the government’s need for evidence.

These days, converting files to an electronic format is pretty accessible to anyone with a scanner or near a print shop. So, if you’re not sure whether to dispose the document after the appropriate time has elapsed, at least scan and save the documentation to give you peace of mind. Lastly, when disposing of old tax records and supporting documents, be smart, securely shred the documents … your trash may be a thief’s treasure.