Tax audits: Where you live could increase chances of an audit

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In our Money Mailbag this week, a viewer asks:

“Is it true that you’re more likely to get audited based on where you live?”

In general the IRS audits less than 0.5% of all returns, which in 2016, was 1.1 million audits. The IRS says, when it comes to who gets audited, it shouldn’t matter where you live, or how much you earn, but a new report from ProPublica casts some doubt on that.

Paul Kiel, co-author of the ProPublica report that analyzes audits from 2012 to 2015, calls the findings “really striking.”

“The below-average map is basically the northern part of the United States, and the above-average is more or less the south,” he says. “You could also see things like counties with a high Latino population, like in the south of Texas, or where the Native American reservations are” had higher audit rates.

RELATED: Take a look at these tax deductions that could save you thousands:

CHARITABLE DEDUCTIONS

That higher standard deduction makes it difficult to put together enough charitable deductions to make it worth itemizing. But if you do make large contributions, the threshold for deductions has jumped from 50 percent of adjusted gross income to 60 percent. While it’s too late to make charitable donations for 2018, Kibler suggests tracking down receipts for donations made throughout the year, especially of cash or goods. Giving to eligible nonprofits, religious organizations, and government organizations (such as a school or public library) are deductible. “If you dropped off a bag of clothing at a local charity or gave them $5 at the cash register of your grocery store, make sure to track these contributions so you get the highest tax benefit possible,” Kibler says.

STANDARD DEDUCTION

The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 almost doubled the standard deduction in 2018, pushing it from $9,350 for those filing as head of household to $18,000. But it also eliminated a bunch of helpful credits and deductions, including the personal exemption, which was $4,050 in 2017.

AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY TAX CREDIT

While tuition and fees deductions have dried up, the American Opportunity Tax Credit remains an option for eligible students — not grad students or long-term undergrads; it’s available only during the first four years of college — with at least half-time status at an accredited school. It covers all of the first $2,000 in expenses and 25 percent of the next $2,000 (for a total $2,500). Schools will send students a 1098-T showing the amount paid last year in tuition and fees, but even expenses including books, supplies, and equipment such as computers can be offset. If the 1098-T does not max out the allowed credit, hold onto those receipts for supplies.

LIFETIME LEARNING CREDIT

This is the tax credit for the older student. Anyone taking classes at an eligible educational institution to acquire or improve job skills is eligible, even students taking just one class well after four years of undergraduate education. There are limits: Students are credited for only 20 percent of $10,000 in expenses ($2,000 is the maximum), though it can be applied to tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Individuals with an adjustable gross income between $56,000 and $66,000 (or between $112,000 but less than $132,000 for married filing jointly), will get a reduced amount. If it’s over those thresholds, you can’t claim the credit at all.

MORTGAGE INTEREST DEDUCTION

If you bought a home and had the mortgage in place before Dec. 15, 2017, you are still eligible to deduct interest on up to $1 million in mortgage debt. If you happened to sign on that date or later, though, your threshold drops to $750,000.

DEPENDENT CARE CREDIT

If a child does not qualify for the Child Tax Credit because they are over 17, they may still be eligible for a $500 credit under new tax laws. The credit also applies for dependents who are elderly or disabled.

CHILD TAX CREDIT

Those who took advantage of the child tax credit in 2017 could claim a $1,000 credit on their income tax return for each child under 17 who qualified. In 2018, that doubles to $2,000 per qualifying child. The credit was also nonrefundable in previous years, but can now be refunded to 15 percent of earned income over $2,500, or up to $1,400. To qualify, children have to be 16 years or younger on the last day of 2018, be related to you, claimed as a dependent, be a documented U.S. citizen or resident, have lived with you for half of the tax year (though absences related to school, vacation, military service, and medical care are exempt) and must not provide more than half of his or her own support. The credit phases out for married taxpayers filing jointly with an income of $400,000 (or $200,000 for all other taxpayers).

EARNED INCOME TAX CREDIT

The Earned Income Tax Credit is for low- and moderate-income taxpayers with “earned income” such as wages, salaries, or self-employment pay (but not Social Security, unemployment, or investment income). The limits are strict, ranging from $15,270 for a single person with no children to $54,884 for a married couple with three children or more. The credit’s value is worth $519 to $6,431 depending on filing status and number of dependents, but requires recipients to have less than $3,500 in investment income for the year.

IRA DEDUCTION

Whether it’s through an employer or private plan, a traditional Individual Retirement Arrangement funded with pretax money — unlike a post-tax Roth IRA — is deductible up to a certain limit. Even if an account is opened and funded in 2019, any contributions made before the tax-filing deadline can be credited to the previous year. For 2018, the maximum contribution is $5,500 (or $6,500 for those 50 or older). There are also deduction limitations depending on the taxpayer’s income and access to an employer-sponsored retirement account.

STUDENT LOAN INTEREST DEDUCTION

Students can still deduct up to $2,500 for interest paid on student loans — but get less if median adjusted gross income exceeds $65,000 ($135,000 for joint returns) and nothing if it’s $80,000 or more ($165,000 or more for joint returns).

CREDIT FOR THE ELDERLY OR THE DISABLED

Taxpayers 65 or older — or younger but retired or on permanent and total disability — may be eligible for a credit. Taxable income must be below $17,500 (or $20,000 if married and filing jointly) and nontaxable Social Security, pension, or disability benefits must be below $5,000. If both partners qualify and file jointly, the income limits are $25,000 for taxable income and $7,500 for nontaxable benefits. The credit itself ranges between $3,750 and $7,000.

SAVERS CREDIT

It isn’t much, but the Savers Credit gives back to low- and moderate-income people who contribute to a qualified retirement account. Taxpayers can get a credit for 10 percent, 20 percent, or 50 percent of the first $2,000 contributed, depending on income and family size. To get the minimum 10 percent, the maximum allowed income is $31,500 for single filers, $47,250 for the head of a household, and $63,000 for joint filers. Also, beginning this year, beginning in 2018, if you’re the designated beneficiary you may be eligible for a credit for contributions to your Achieving a Better Life Experience account for persons with disabilities.

SEP-IRA CONTRIBUTIONS

A longtime friend to small-business owners and freelancers, the Simplified Employee Pension IRA offers higher contribution limits than a traditional IRA. As their own employer, business owners and freelancers can contribute up to 25 percent of their annual income or $55,000, whichever is lower. As with a traditional IRA, contributions made before the tax-filing deadline (without an extension) can be applied to the previous year.

MORTGAGE INTEREST CREDIT

Taxpayers who get a Qualified Mortgage Credit Certificate worth up to $7,500 from a local or state government may be able to claim the Mortgage Interest Credit. The home must be the taxpayer’s primary residence, and interest payments can’t go to a taxpayer’s relative. The credit is worth up to $2,000, and unused portions may be carried forward to the following year.

SOLO 401(K) CONTRIBUTIONS

Unfortunately, taxpayers can’t just set one of these up before the tax deadline and save some cash. The one-participant 401(k), or solo or self-employed 401(k), requires you to file for a federal Employer Identification Number and set up the account by Dec. 31. But once a solo 401(k) is established, taxpayers can make contributions right up to the tax-filing date in April (or mid-October, with an extension). Total contributions can’t exceed $55,000, but that’s still nearly four times the maximum employee contribution to a standard 401(k) of $18,500.

BONUS DEPRECIATION

If you bought new office furniture, computer servers, cranes, end loaders, cattle, trucks, or taxis for a business last year, you may be able to write off more from them than you thought. Even if you built oil derricks, warehouses, office space, or utility plants after Sept. 26, 2017, the bonus depreciation you could claim on the first year of owning those assets increased from 50 percent just a day before to 100 percent “expensing” from Sept. 27 onward. Recent tax changes also extended bonus depreciation from items bought or built new to both new and used assets. That “expensing” applies to productions (qualified film, television, and/or staged performances) and even certain fruit or nuts. The law also increased the maximum deduction from $500,000 to $1 million, with the phase-out threshold increasing from $2 million to $2.5 million.

CAR EXPENSES

Self-employed people can deduct 54.5 cents a mile driven for business purposes the previous year; the rate goes up to 58 cents in 2019. That said, detailed mileage logs are required. Writing down the miles driven (odometer readings at the beginning and end of the trip help), the date, the business purpose of the trip, and the destination should be adequate. Taxpayers can also take a 18-cent-per-mile deduction for eligible miles driven for medical purposes in 2018, up from 17 cents in 2017 (and it’s 20 cents in 2019). The standard mileage rate for charitable activities is unchanged at 14 cents. Moving expenses, however, no longer qualify for a deduction.

HOME OFFICE DEDUCTION

This one is tricky, as simply working on the couch or at a kitchen table doesn’t cut it. A home office has to be a dedicated space for working and meeting clients and customers. Furthermore, office-related utilities including telephone, internet, and even heat and electricity have to be parsed out separately. You can try to determine which portion of a home’s expenses, taxes, insurance, and depreciation is dedicated to a home office; a simplified version multiplies the square feet of the room by $5 (if the total size is 300 square feet or smaller). That said, you can only get this deduction if you’re self-employed: It disappeared for employees in 2018.

ADOPTION CREDIT

You may be able to take a tax credit of up to $13,810 for qualified expenses paid to adopt a child in 2018. Those expenses include adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, travel expenses (including amounts spent for meals and lodging), and readoption expenses for a foreign child. Those credits apply to adoptions of anyone under 18 years old or physically or mentally incapable of taking care of themselves. If your modified adjusted gross income is more than $207,140, the credit is reduced; those with MAGI of $247,140 or more can’t take the credit.

FOREIGN TAX CREDIT

If you paid or accrued income tax in a foreign country or U.S. possession in 2018, you can use it as a credit against U.S. income tax. If you already exclude foreign earned income, foreign housing costs, foreign possessions, or income from Puerto Rico exempt from U.S. tax, you aren’t eligible. Also, your foreign tax credit can’t be more than your U.S. tax liability multiplied against a fraction made up of taxable income from outside the United States and total taxable sources.

HOME SALE EXCLUSION

Most people who sell a home know that, if they’ve sold at a gain, they may exclude up to $250,000 of it if single or $500,000 if married filing jointly. Granted, you actually had to live in that home for two of the past five years (military, foreign service, and intelligence personnel are exempt). What most homeowners don’t realize is that the gain isn’t only on the sale price of the home, but on improvements made, real estate agent sales commissions, closing costs, recording fees, and survey fees. Kibler suggests keeping clear records of all of it in case of an audit and to keep a big chunk of the gain tax-free.

FOREIGN EARNED INCOME EXCLUSION

If you live in a foreign country for at least 330 full days out of the year, you can have up to $104,100 of your salaries, wages, professional fees, and other amounts you get as an employee excluded from federally taxable income. You may also exclude amounts your employer pays for rent, furniture rental, parking, or other items.

HSA CONTRIBUTION LIMITS

The IRS will allow taxpayers to make tax-free contributions and withdrawals from Health Savings Accounts as long as they go toward qualifying medical expenses. High-deductible health plans — with premiums ranging between $1,350 and $6,650 for singles and $2,700 and $13,300 for families — allow taxpayers to contribute up to $3,450 for single filers or $6,900 for families to HSAs without any tax implications.

NONBUSINESS ENERGY TAX CREDIT

The Nonbusiness Energy Property Credit covers materials that meet the efficiency standards of the Department of Energy. This includes home insulation, exterior doors, exterior windows and skylights, some roofing materials, electric heat pumps, various water heaters, central air conditioning, biomass stoves, furnaces, boilers, and advanced circulation fans. You can claim 10 percent of the minor improvements or 100 percent of the big ones, but you’ll get only a maximum $500 credit for all years of improvements combined. It also sets credit limits for windows ($200), boilers ($150), fans ($50), and bigger jobs ($300).

RESIDENTIAL RENEWABLE ENERGY TAX CREDIT

If you’re thinking about going solar, installing a small windmill, looking into geothermal heat, or experimenting with fuel cells, there’s tax incentive to do so. You can get a 30 percent rebate on any of the above, but act quickly. If you don’t install it by the end of 2019, the rebate drops every year until 2022.

CASUALTY, DISASTER AND THEFT LOSSES

In previous years, a taxpayer could get a deduction for any mishap that occurred in their home. But starting in 2018, the damage must have occurred during a federally declared disaster for a taxpayer to get that same deduction. This deduction may return in full in 2025, but for now it’s limited to disaster areas.

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The U.S. counties with the highest audit rates – with 40% more than the national average — were in rural locations like Humphries County in Mississippi. A third of all audits are those who claimed the earned income tax credit (EITC). To be eligible for the EITC refund that ranges from $519 to $6,431, depending on how many children you claim, the adjusted gross income for single filers must be in the range of $15,270 for zero children to $49,194 for three or more children. In 2017, 26 million households claimed this credit.

“These audits are usually initiated by a computer,” Kiel says. “They go after these people that get this credit because they want to make sure that your kids are your kids.”

Of the top 10 most audited counties in the country, ProPublica found most were in the south, mainly in Mississippi:

  1. Humphreys County, Mississippi

  2. Tunica County, Mississippi

  3. East Carroll Parish, Louisiana

  4. Noxubee County, Mississippi

  5. Sharkey County, Mississippi

  6. Shannon County, South Dakota

  7. Holmes County, Mississippi

  8. Quitman County, Mississippi

  9. Coahoma County, Mississippi

  10. Claiborne County, Mississippi

    *Note: Shannon County’s name changed in 2014 and is now Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota.

In response to this report, the IRS has said that audit selections are blind to race and location: “To ensure an equitable process for all taxpayers, fairness and integrity are built into the foundation of our return selection process for audits, which is designed to select returns with the highest likelihood of noncompliance. Audit inventory selection uses systemic risk-based scoring criteria. The audit selection process applies the same business rules, filters and scoring to all returns to identify potentially non-compliant taxpayers. The selection criteria does not include any components or factors related to the geographic location or ethnicity of the taxpayers.”

But all it takes is one look at the darker shades of this map that show the highest rates of audits versus the lowest rates of audits.

Income tax filings in these counties were audited at a higher rate than the nation as a whole.
Income tax filings in these counties were audited at a lower rate than the nation as a whole.

Related: How to get more time to file your taxes

“The thing that stood out was what’s called the Black Belt across the south of Alabama and into the Mississippi delta, which dates back to the early nineteenth century when there was a land rush there, and that’s why you still have elevated African American populations there,” Kiel says.

Analysts found the least likely to be audited are middle-income households earning between $50,000 to $100,000 in states with largely white populations like New Hampshire, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

While wage earners with a typical W2 don’t need to worry as much about audits, Kiel says freelancers, small business owners, and those who qualify for the earned income tax credit need to be able to prove their earnings and the status of the dependents they claim. These audits on average can take three to six months to resolve – a painstakingly long time for the households who are oftentimes counting on refunds to make ends meet.

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