How Far Back Can the IRS Audit? 

Oct 19, 2023

Navigating the labyrinthine world of U.S. taxes, including federal tax returns and individual tax returns, is challenging enough when you’re stateside. For U.S. expatriates, the complexity can multiply. One question that often looms large is, “How far back can the IRS audit?” Understanding the rules, statute of limitations, and exceptions surrounding IRS audits is crucial for maintaining compliance and peace of mind. Generally, the IRS has a three-year window to audit your tax returns, but as you’ll see, there are exceptions.

If you don’t file your tax returns, the statute of limitations never starts, allowing the IRS to audit the return at any time in the future. This is particularly important for U.S. expats who might assume they’re exempt from filing because they’re living abroad.

Related: Common Mistakes to Avoid when Claiming Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

What is the Statute of Limitations?

The term “statute of limitations” refers to the time frame within which the IRS is legally allowed to audit your tax returns for potential errors, omissions, or fraud. This period is generally three years from the date you filed your return or the due date of the return, whichever is later. After the statute of limitations expires, the IRS generally can’t question the information you’ve reported on your individual income tax return, or your filing history, or request additional documentation.

Taxpayers generally have three years from the date they filed their original tax return to claim a refund.

What Happens When You Don’t File Your Tax Returns?

If you neglect to file your tax returns, the statute of limitations never commences, allowing the IRS to audit your return indefinitely. This is a crucial point for U.S. expats who may think they’re exempt from filing due to their overseas residence. Moreover, if you’re required to file Form 8938 and fail to do so, the statute of limitations remains frozen until three years after you eventually file this form. Starting from the tax year 2011, not filing Form 8938 also freezes the statute of limitations for your entire tax return.

Exceptions to the Three-Year Rule

While the three-year rule serves as a general guideline, there are circumstances where the IRS can extend this period. Here are some of the key exceptions:

  • Six-Year Audit Period for Substantial Errors

If the IRS identifies a “substantial error” in your tax return, the audit window extends to six years, known as the six-year statute. A substantial error usually involves an understatement of income by more than 25%. For U.S. expats, this could be particularly relevant if you have foreign income or financial accounts that weren’t accurately reported.

  • No Time Limit for Fraudulent Returns or Failure to File

If you fail to file a tax return or file a fraudulent one, the IRS has an indefinite period to audit you. This is a critical point for U.S. expats who may not be aware that they are required to file U.S. taxes even while living abroad. Willful tax evasion is considered a criminal activity that can result in severe penalties.

  • Special Cases: Foreign Income and Inheritances

U.S. expats should also be aware of Form 3520, which relates to foreign trusts and the receipt of certain foreign gifts or inheritances. If you fail to file this form, there is no statute of limitations on when the IRS can audit you regarding these foreign transactions.

What Triggers an IRS Audit?

The IRS uses various methods to select tax returns for audit, and most of these are random. However, certain red flags can increase your chances of being audited

  • Failure to Report All Taxable Income

The IRS receives copies of your W-2s and 1099s. If there’s a discrepancy between these forms and your tax return, you’re more likely to be audited. This is particularly relevant for expats who might have multiple income streams, both in the U.S. and abroad, including unreported income.

  • High Income

High-income earners are more likely to be audited. The IRS has different brackets for audit likelihood, and those with incomes over $10 million have the highest audit rates.

  • Large Charitable Deductions

If you claim large charitable deductions relative to your income, the IRS may question the validity of these claims. Ensure you have proper documentation for all charitable contributions, especially if they are made to foreign organizations.

  • Math Errors and Excessive Deductions

Simple math errors can trigger an audit. Also, if your deductions seem excessive compared to your income, the IRS may decide to take a closer look at your return. This is especially true for self-employed persons who claim high business expenses.

Preparing for an Audit: Documentation

If you’re selected for an audit, the first thing you’ll need to do is gather all relevant documentation. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Bills
  • Receipts
  • Loan agreements
  • Legal papers
  • Foreign income documents
  • Tax documents

Having a well-organized filing system can expedite the audit process and may even result in a more favorable outcome. It’s crucial to keep detailed records of your tax payments, especially if you’re claiming credits like the income tax credit.

How Long Does an IRS Audit Take?

The duration of an IRS audit can vary significantly depending on several factors:

  • Type of Audit: Correspondence audits are usually quicker, while field audits can take longer.
  • Complexity of Issues: The more complex your tax situation, which could include multiple financial accounts and a complicated filing history, the longer the audit will likely take.
  • Your Responsiveness: Timely provision of requested documents, including additional documentation and tax records, can expedite the process.

On average, most IRS audits are concluded within a year, but some can stretch beyond two years, especially for U.S. expats with intricate foreign income scenarios and complex individual tax returns.

What Happens After an Audit?

Once the audit is concluded, there are generally three possible outcomes:

Agreement with Audit Results

If you agree with the audit findings, you’ll sign the examination report or a similar form. If additional taxes are owed, several payment options for your tax payments are available, including installment agreements and offers in compromise.

Disagreement with Audit Results

If you disagree, you have the right to request a conference with an IRS manager or even take the matter to court. It’s advisable to consult a tax professional to explore your options and represent you in negotiations, especially if the statute of limitations runs close to expiring.

No Changes

In some cases, the IRS may find that all your tax claims are substantiated, resulting in no changes to your tax liability. This is often the case when you have filed your individual income tax return and paid your taxes on time, and all your tax filing records are in order.

Avoiding Future Audits

While there’s no foolproof way to avoid an IRS audit, certain best practices can minimize your risk:

  • Accurate Reporting: Always report your income accurately, including foreign income.
  • Documentation: Keep thorough records of your income, deductions, and credits. Detailed records are essential.
  • Consult a Tax Professional: Especially for complex tax situations, professional guidance can be invaluable.

Tip: If you’re a U.S. expat, consider using a tax service that specializes in expatriate taxation. They can help you navigate the complexities of filing as an expat, ensuring that you meet all deadlines before the statute of limitations expires. We offer free unlimited tax consultations via email. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Understanding the ins and outs of IRS audits can save you a lot of stress and potential financial hardship. As a U.S. expat, you have unique tax obligations that require careful attention to detail.

By staying informed and taking a proactive approach to your tax situation, you can navigate the complexities of IRS audits with greater confidence and peace of mind.

 

 

 

 

Written by

Kasia Strzelczyk, EA

A certified accountant and IRS enrolled agent with over 8 years of experience working with US expats. With a deep understanding of the unique financial challenges faced by expats, Kasia is dedicated to helping clients navigate complex tax laws and regulations.

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