By Max Berry.
Just how much time the IRS will devote to small business audits in the current financial climate remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Small business owners have always run a heightened risk of being audited. Some businesses are more vulnerable than others, but knowing how to best avoid an audit-and how to deal with one if one can't be avoided-will only help you come tax season.
"Self-employed people have always been...audit targets simply because a salaried person has very few deductions, or ways to cheat," says Fred Daily, tax attorney and author of Stand Up To The IRS. With the IRS looking for cheaters, the best way to avoid an audit is, quite naturally, to play fair. Make sure you report all your income, particularly if you run a cash-based business. Dubious deductions will arouse suspicions as well: Be strict about which ones you claim.
Also take note that the IRS is often on the lookout for businesses that categorize full-time employees as independent contractors in an effort to avoid payroll taxes. If your business uses freelancers, make sure you draw up individualized contracts for their services and refrain from dictating the terms of where and when they complete their work for you.
Speaking of categorization, unincorporated businesses tend to be at greater risk of audits than those that are incorporated. "It's historically true that if your small business is in entity form, your audit likelihood is lower," says Daily. "Small corporations can incorporate and operate as S corps or limited liability corps to reduce their chances of being audited."
Even if you've taken all the necessary precautions to avoid an audit, it never hurts to be prepared. The National Federation of Independent Businesses recommends keeping all records and receipts for at least seven years. "Records are the Achilles' heel of the small business person," says Daily. "Very few-if they're successful-have the time or ability to keep records." For help staying organized, Daily recommends using an accounting software program.
No one who aims to save every receipt for seven years will be successful. Thankfully, the IRS allows you to reconstruct missing records when necessary. Notations made in a business diary or a calendar from the period in question are acceptable substitutes for actual records and receipts. Also use pre-numbered invoices so the IRS will be able to tell that all transactions are accounted for. Hang on to voided invoices for the same reason.
Deductions need to be documented just as carefully as revenue. Home office deductions, for example, are not valid if your dining room doubles as your office. Take a photograph of your (separate) home workspace and keep it on hand in case an auditor challenges the validity of the deduction. Personal vehicles may be used for business, but take great care to record where and why you used them and keep track of exact mileage. If family travels with you on business, none of their expenses may be deducted; if you take a client out for a nice dinner, make sure you save the receipt.
Handling an Audit
Should worse come to worst, and you become the subject of an audit, don't panic. The IRS does most of its auditing by mail. Even if you are audited, chances are you won't come face-to-face with an agent. But if you do, the easiest way to handle it may be to employ an accountant or tax attorney. That is, if you think the reward will be worth the investment. "If you're dealing with six or seven figures, you may want to think of hiring a professional," says Daily.
Or, if the money you'd save by winning your audit is more or less equal to what you'd pay a pro, you may want to go it alone. "If you're confident," says Daily, "I don't think there's any reason you can't handle the audit yourself." If this is the tack you choose, organize all your records ahead of time. Being forced to sort through a messy stack of documents will only force the agent to take a harder look at each of them. Always be polite and answer the agent truthfully, but know your rights. Reading IRS Publication 1, explaining the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, will give you a sense of what the agent is allowed to ask for and what you are allowed to withhold. Buying yourself some time never hurts either. Request a postponement if you need more time to get your records in order.
Whenever your audit takes place, it is never a good idea to host. Holding the audit at the tax office or your attorney or accountant's office is the smarter practice. Daily explains: "An IRS agent may see something in your office that raises a question in his mind. Secondly, there's nothing to stop an agent from talking to your employees, and you probably don't want your employees to know you're being audited."
Employing a professional may be a good way to spare yourself such a visit. An attorney or accountant will know exactly which documents you are required to provide and, perhaps more importantly, the ones you aren't. Once you have supplied your representative with the appropriate materials, you may not even have to be present at the audit. You do have a business to run after all.
Article updated on Feb 11, 2011. Originally published on Mar 3, 2009
Mirror-155px v2.jpg 13.7 K