6. No Return or Fraudulent Return. What if you never file a return or file a fraudulent one? The IRS has no time limit if you never file a return or if it can prove civil or criminal fraud. If you file a return, can the IRS ever claim that your return didn’t count so that the statute of limitations never starts to run? The answer is “yes.” If you don’t sign your return, the IRS does not consider it a valid tax return. That means the three years can never start to run.
Another big “no-no” is if you alter the “penalties of perjury” language at the bottom of the return where you sign. If you alter that language, it also can mean that the tax return does not count. Such a move may sound like a tax protester statement; however, some well-meaning taxpayers forget to sign or may unwittingly change the penalties-of-perjury wording. Other taxpayers just miss a form to end up in audit purgatory.
7. Amending Tax Returns. Taxpayers must abide by time limits, too. If you want to amend a tax return, you must do it within three years of the original filing date. You might think that amending a tax return would restart the IRS’s three-year audit statute, but it doesn’t.
However, where your amended tax return shows an increase in tax, and when you submit the amended return within 60 days before the three-year statute runs, the IRS has only 60 days after it receives the amended return to make an assessment. This narrow window can present planning opportunities. In contrast, an amended return that does not report a net increase in tax does not trigger an extension of the statute.
8. Claiming a Refund. The adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law can apply to taxes in some cases. Getting money back from the IRS is difficult. If you pay estimated taxes, or have tax withholding on your paycheck but fail to file a return, you generally have only two years (not three) to try to get it back.
Suppose you make tax payments (by withholding or estimated tax payments), but you have not filed tax returns for five years. When you file those long-past-due returns, you may find that overpayments in one year may not offset underpayments in another. The resulting lost tax money is painful, and it catches many taxpayers unaware.
9. Extending the Statute. The IRS typically must examine a tax return within three years, unless one of the many exceptions discussed here applies, but the IRS does track the three-year statute as its main limitation. Frequently, the IRS says that it needs more time to audit.
The IRS may contact you about two-and-a-half years after you file, asking you to sign a form to extend the statute of limitations. It can be tempting to relish your power and refuse, as some taxpayers do; however, doing so in this context is often a mistake. It usually prompts the IRS to send a notice assessing extra taxes, without taking the time to thoroughly review your explanation of why you do not owe more. The IRS may make unfavorable assumptions. Thus, most tax advisers tell clients to agree to the requested extension.
You may, however, be able to limit the scope of the extension to certain tax issues, or to limit the time (say, an extra year). You should seek professional tax help if you receive such an inquiry. Get some advice about your particular facts.
10. Other Statute Traps. Statute-of-limitation issues come up frequently, and the facts can become confusing. As but one example, consider what happens when an IRS notice is sent to a partnership, but not to its individual partners. The audit or tax dispute may be ongoing, but you may have no personal notice of it. You might think that your statute has run and that you are in the clear; however, the partnership tax rules may give the IRS extra time.
Also watch for cases where the statute may be “tolled” (held in abeyance) by an IRS John Doe summons, even though you have no notice of it. A John Doe summons is issued not to taxpayers, but to banks and other third parties who have relationships with taxpayers. You may have no actual notice that the summons was issued. Even so, there is an automatic extension of the statute of limitations in some cases. For example, suppose a promoter has sold you on a tax strategy. The IRS may issue the promoter a summons, asking for all the names of his or her client/customers. While he or she fights turning those names over, the statute-of-limitations clock for all of those clients (which might include you) is stopped.
Another situation in which the IRS statute is tolled is where the taxpayer is outside the United States. If you flee the country for years and return, you may find that your tax problems can spring back to life. You might also be living and working outside the United States and have no knowledge that the IRS has a claim against you. Even then, your statute of limitations is extended.
11. State Tax Statutes. Some states have the same three- and six-year statutes as the IRS, but set their own time clocks, giving themselves more time to assess extra taxes. In California, for example, the basic tax statute of limitations is four years, not three. However, if the IRS adjusts your federal return, you are obligated to file an amended return in California to match up to what the feds did. If you don’t, the California statute will never run out. In addition, as in most states, if you never file a California return, California’s statute never starts to run. Some advisers suggest filing nonresident returns just to report California source income to begin California’s statute. There can be many tricky interactions between state and federal statutes of limitations.
12. Keeping Good Records. The statute of limitations is sometimes about good record-keeping. Proving exactly when you filed your return, or exactly what forms or figures were included in your return, can be critical. For that reason, keep scrupulous records, including proof of when you mailed your returns. The difference between winning and losing may depend on your records. The vast majority of IRS disputes are settled, and getting a good, or mediocre, settlement can hinge on your records as well.
If you file electronically, keep all the electronic data, plus a hard copy of your return. As for record retention, many people feel safe about destroying receipts and back-up data after six or seven years; but never destroy old tax returns. In addition, do not destroy old receipts if they relate to basis in an asset. For example, receipts for home remodeling 15 years ago are still relevant, as long as you own the house. You may need to prove your basis when you later sell it, and you will want to claim a basis increase for the remodeling 15 years back. For all these reasons, be careful and keep good records.
13. Ten Years to Collect. Once a tax assessment is made, the IRS collection statute is typically 10 years. This is the basic collection statute, but in some cases that 10 years can essentially be renewed, and there are some cases where the IRS seems to have a memory like an elephant. For example, in Beeler v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2013-130, the Tax Court held Mr. Beeler responsible for 30-year-old payroll tax liabilities.
Conclusions. An audit can involve targeted questions and requests of proof of particular items only. Alternatively, audits can cover the waterfront, asking for proof of virtually every line item. Even if you do your best with your taxes, taxes are horribly complex. Innocent mistakes can sometimes be interpreted as suspect, and digging into the past is rarely pleasant. Records that were at your fingertips when you filed might be buried or gone even a few years later, so the stakes with these kinds of issues can be large.
Tax lawyers and accountants are used to monitoring the duration of their clients’ audit exposure, and so should you. It pays to know how far back you can be asked to prove your income, expenses, bank deposits, and more. Watch the calendar until you are clear of audit. In most cases, that will be either three years or six years after you file.