Often, timing is everything or so the adage goes. From medicine to sports and cooking, timing can make all the difference in the outcome. What about with taxes? What are your chances of being audited? Does timing play a factor in raising or decreasing your risk of being audited by the IRS?

For example, does the time when you file your income tax return affect the IRS’s decision to audit you? Some individuals think filing early will decrease their risk of an audit, while others file at the very-last minute, believing this will reduce their chance of being audited. And some taxpayers don’t think timing matters at all.

What your return says is key
If it’s not the time of filing, what really increases your audit potential? The information on your return, your income bracket and profession–not when you file–are the most significant factors that increase your chances of being audited. The higher your income the more attractive your return becomes to the IRS. And if you’re self-employed and/or work in a profession that generates mostly cash income, you are also more likely to draw IRS attention.

Further, you may pique the IRS’s interest and trigger an audit if:

  • You claim a large amount of itemized deductions or an unusually large amount of deductions or losses in relation to your income
  • You have questionable business deductions
  • You are a higher-income taxpayer
  • You claim tax shelter investment losses
  • Information on your return doesn’t match up with information on your 1099 or W-2 forms received from your employer or investment house
  • You have a history of being audited
  • You are a partner or shareholder of a corporation that is being audited
  • You are self-employed or you are a business or profession currently on the IRS’s “hit list” for being targeted for audit, such as Schedule C (Form 1040) filers)
  • You are primarily a cash-income earner (i.e. you work in a profession that is traditionally a cash-income business)
  • You claim the earned income tax credit
  • You report rental property losses
  • An informant has contacted the IRS asserting you haven’t complied with the tax laws.

DIF score
Most audits are generated by a computer program that creates a DIF score (Discriminate Information Function) for your return. The DIF score is used by the IRS to select returns with the highest likelihood of generating additional taxes, interest and penalties for collection by the IRS. It is computed by comparing certain tax items such as income, expenses and deductions reported on your return with national DIF averages for taxpayers in similar tax brackets.

E-filed returns. There is a perception that e-filed returns have a higher audit risk, but there is no proof to support it. All data on hand-written returns end up in a computer file at the IRS anyway; through a combination of a scanning and a hand input procedure that takes place soon after the return is received by the Service Center. Computer cross-matching of tax return data against information returns (W-2s, 1099s, etc.) takes place no matter when or how you file.

Early or late returns. Some individuals believe that since the pool of filed returns is small at the beginning of the filing season, they have a greater chance of being audited. There is no evidence that filing your tax return early increases your risk of being audited. In fact, if you expect a refund from the IRS you should file early so that you receive your refund sooner. Additionally, there is no evidence of an increased risk of audit if you file late on a valid extension. The statute of limitations on audits is generally three years, measured from the due date of the return (April 18 for individuals this year, but typically April 15) whether filed on that date or earlier, or from the date received by the IRS if filed after April 18.

Amended returns. Since all amended returns are visually inspected, there may be a higher risk of being examined. Therefore, weigh the risk carefully before filing an amended return. Amended returns are usually associated with the original return. The Service Center can decide to accept the claim or, if not, send the claim and the original return to the field for examination.