Choose your preparer carefully. According to the most recent report by the National Taxpayer Advocate, 60 percent of individuals use paid preparers to do their taxes (the percentage for businesses is higher). Since you, not the preparer, are legally responsible for what's submitted, you want to make sure the professional you use is ethical and skilled. Go to the IRS' website for a list of eight points to keep in mind before making a selection. These include checking with the Better Business Bureau to see if your preparer has any complaints against him. You also can check with the IRS' office of Professional Responsibility to see if the IRS ever has disciplined him.
Michael Dunworth, a tax attorney with Pryor Cashman LLP in New York City, says you should steer clear of anyone who promises to work miracles. "If you've had a big gain or received some big slug of income, and somebody claims they can just make it go away, you've got trouble right off the bat," he cautions. "When there are big offsets against big gains, that's a red flag for the IRS. Avoid anything that looks questionable or shaky."
Don't file Form 5213. If you've turned a hobby into a business, you might be tempted to file this form ("Election To Postpone Determination as To Whether the Presumption Applies That an Activity Is Engaged in for Profit"), which, in effect, tells the IRS to chill out for five years until you can prove that your venture is capable of making profits. The joker is that by filing this form you all but guarantee yourself an audit at the end of the five years. Better solution: Document that your venture has the potential to make money. Be able to show, for instance, that there are other people doing it for a profit; that you posses the necessary knowledge and experience; and that you are putting in the amount of time and energy necessary for it someday to succeed.
Sign your return. Every year, people forget to.
Incorporate. Small businesses are among the IRS's favorite audit targets. A self-employed tax payer filing Schedule C runs a 10 times greater risk of being audited than someone who has incorporated. And if you incorporate, you'll be eligible to claim more deductions.
Explain. Provide information before it's asked for. Schulman gives this example: "Personal legal expenses aren't deductable; but ones necessary for the production of income are. So, don't just deduct legal expenses of $60,000. That will raise an eyebrow. Provide a note explaining that you had to sue, say, to collect payment of fees owed the business."
Show your state tax return the same respect you do your fed. If you're ever audited at state level for having failed to report income — or for any other reason — your state communicates the fact to the feds, which can invite an IRS audit.
Beware whistleblowers. Persons with the knowledge or incentive to rat you out are nicely paid by the IRS to do so. Rewards range from 15 to 30 percent of the amount owed by the tax miscreant (business or individual). So play nice. Don't cheat. And guard your privacy.
Final words of wisdom from attorney Dunworth:
"Don't be doing things just to avoid an audit, because sometimes you could be leaving money on the table. I tell my clients, don't be afraid of an audit. Be prepared for one. Keep good records. Then, if it happens, it should go fairly painlessly."
But don't get carried away: Even Steve drew the line at six.