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Don't worry, the IRS isn't hiring an 'army' of auditors—here's what's really happening

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When President Joe Biden recently signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, he authorized $80 billion in funding for the Internal Revenue Service over the next 10 years.

More than $45 billion is earmarked for enforcement — part of an effort to close the estimated $600 billion "tax gap," the difference between what Americans owe and what they actually pay.

To this end, the bill calls for an uptick in hiring at the IRS, a detail that critics of the bill have homed in on. The image you've likely seen bouncing around social media: an "army" of 87,000 new IRS agents beating down your doors to conduct audits.

The legislation will indeed result in increased audit activity, but claims of a new army of IRS agents and rampant audits on everyday Americans are misleading, tax experts say.

Below, tax pros explain where the money is going, why you're very unlikely to be audited and what you can do now to make the prospect even unlikelier.

IRS hiring is meant to get to 'status quo'

That 87,000-agent figure isn't an arbitrary number. But to put it into context, it's important to examine the state of the IRS.

"There are a bunch of problems. They have about 8 million unprocessed 2021 returns and only answered 11% of calls in 2021," says Bill Smith, national director of tax technical services at CBIZ MHM's National Tax Office in Washington, D.C. "There's been a 17% reduction in the [IRS] workforce since 2010."

What's more, the IRS's workforce is aging. Between retirement and other departures, the agency will lose around 50,000 of its 80,000 workers over the next five years, according to 2021 congressional testimony from IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig.

Back to the 87,000 new agents: That number comes from a May 2021 report from the Treasury Department assessing how the IRS could use an $80 billion appropriation. The report says the IRS could add nearly 87,000 new staff — not all of them enforcement agents — in order to "rebuild" and "revitalize" the agency.

In other words, that figure is not from the IRS or from the official law (how exactly the agency will spend the money remains to be seen). It's an estimate that accounts for a huge amount of attrition at the agency.

"When we hear 87,000 agents, it sounds like a horrifying army of people. But it's what they need to maintain, because people are exiting in volumes," says Robert Cordasco, a certified public accountant and founder of Cordasco & Co. in Savannah, Georgia. "I don't know how much it adds as much as it gets us to the status quo."

What to know about audits

Under the new law, the IRS does plan to do more audits. But it's important to remember that audits are rare, and have only grown rarer in recent years as the IRS has bled staff and resources.

Between 2010 and 2019, audit rates for individuals dropped from 0.9% to 0.25%, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. Those rates vary by income level, with those making less than $25,000 and those with incomes above $200,000 receiving higher-than-average scrutiny in recent years.

The new efforts to close the tax gap are unlikely to focus on mom-and-pop taxpayers, experts say.

"The absolute number of audits will go up, but the share of people being audited will likely be the same for households earning less than $400,000 per year," says Glenn Borst, senior legal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Legal and Regulatory U.S.

The bulk of new audit activities will be directed at high-net-worth individuals, large corporations and complex partnerships, he adds.

How to avoid an audit

If you're still worried that you'll fall into the less than 1% of taxpayers who have their returns audited, be sure to avoid common mistakes the IRS computer system is more likely to flag.

"Some mistakes that taxpayers make may seem obvious, but they get overlooked," says Borst. Here are some of the most common ones he sees.

  • Mathematical errors
  • Numbers in your return not matching documents submitted by other payers
  • Mismatched tax ID numbers
  • Income not matching
  • Mis-entering dependents' Social Security numbers
  • Forgetting to sign your return
  • Overestimating the value of property donated to charity
  • Reporting unusually large deductions (say, for business expenses) compared with previous years
  • Claiming losses from a business activity the IRS views as a hobby ("Horse breeding is a classic," Borst says.)

You'd also be wise to figure out the exact amount for any deduction you're claiming, rather than using round numbers, Borst adds. "The IRS uses a mathematical approach to select returns for audit," he says. "If you say your travel expenses are $400, they say, 'That doesn't look right.' If you say $397, that looks more realistic."

But remember, even if it seems like the IRS is getting a huge injection of cash, it will be a while before any beefed up enforcement begins.

"This is a 10-year budget. I don't see any immediate impact on the IRS," says Cordasco. "You still always need to be cognizant of coloring within the lines."

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