When the IRS is reviewing your tax return, it doesn’t matter whether a filing mistake is intentional or inadvertent. Any unintentional error can trigger a notice, says Robert Aruldoss, senior financial planning research analyst at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.
While a mistake won’t necessarily lead to an audit, you want to avoid as many red flags as possible—particularly if you’re a high-income taxpayer, since they tend to be audited more frequently.
Understating income and overstating deductions are two potential problem areas for filers, Robert warns. But those aren’t the only places where returns can go off the rails. Here are five frequent mistakes people make, and ways to prevent them.
1. Reporting income inaccurately
With few exceptions, any income you earn—whether from an employer, a side business or an investment—is reported to the government. So the income you report needs to match what the IRS has on file.
How to prevent it: Keep track of your income throughout the year and make sure it matches your tax documents.
- Earnings. Your employer reports wages, salary and bonuses to the government on your W-2 form. Review your copy for accuracy.
- Retirement income. Withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement accounts like 401(k)s and traditional IRAs are taxed as ordinary income. Depending on your income, a portion of your Social Security benefits is likely to be taxable as well.
- Self-employment income and investment income. These are reported on 1099s. If you receive a 1099 with an error, contact the source and ask for a corrected version. If you’re self-employed and made at least $600 from a client, that client will report it to the IRS. But it’s up to you to report amounts under $600.
- You also must report income from prizes or gambling winnings.
2. Data entry errors and miscalculations
It’s surprisingly easy to transpose digits or read from the wrong line of a worksheet when you’re entering your information into tax preparation software. And if you’re still filing on paper, the chance that you’ll move a decimal, add incorrectly or make other computational mistakes only goes up.
How to prevent it: It may sound obvious, but “always double check your return figures before filing,” Robert says. Be especially careful when you work with tax credits and special deductions, or if you have to file a more complicated tax return that includes worksheets, tables or additional forms. If you’re really worried about making a sloppy mistake, your best option is to ditch the paper forms and use tax preparation software, or pay a tax professional to do the work for you.
It may sound obvious, but always check your numbers.
3. Misreporting investment income
If you don’t know the correct cost basis of your investments, you could misreport investment gains or losses.
How to prevent it: “Check your return to see if it matches the 1099 in your broker files, including cost-basis information—whether that was reported to the IRS or not,” Robert says. Cost basis is reported for most securities bought since 2011, but if you’ve been holding onto a stock for decades, the IRS won’t have the cost basis on file. Also, be sure to account for any subsequent stock splits, spin-offs or mutual fund distributions that might have been automatically reinvested along the way.
If there is a discrepancy between your records and your broker’s, fix it with your broker before you file. Make sure you have records to substantiate your cost basis; if you do, discrepancies can probably be resolved even after filing, Robert says. Then, going forward, be sure your default preferences are on file with your broker (e.g., selling your highest cost basis shares first rather than “first in, first out”).
And watch out for wash sale rule violations, which will also show up on your brokerage record. You will lose the tax benefits of a trading loss if you have purchased a “substantially identical” security 30 days before or after the sale.
4. Excessive or unusual deductions
Certain deductions can be a red flag for the IRS—especially for self-employed taxpayers who itemize and for individuals with large charitable contributions relative to their income.
How to prevent it: Deductions can be tricky for self-employed filers because sometimes the line between business and personal expenses can feel blurry, particularly around home offices, entertainment, meals, transportation and phone use. If you’re ever in doubt, check the IRS guidelines for business deductions—they’re pretty clear. Follow them and keep thorough records, and check with a professional if you’re still not sure.
When it comes to charitable contributions, check the charity’s tax-exempt status first, and be sure you obtain a proper receipt. Be aware that the tax deduction for the donation of personal goods applies only to items that are in good condition. And deduct only the current fair market value, not the amount you paid for the item.
5. Erroneous personal information
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that trip you up: forgetting to sign your return, for example, or entering an incorrect Social Security number.
How to prevent it: Use this checklist to review a few key items.
- Your name. Maybe your name is frequently misspelled. Maybe you changed your name in the past year. Whatever the reason, it’s important to make sure your name is correct here.
- Your address, particularly if you’ve moved recently.
- Your Social Security number and the Social Security numbers for all your dependents.
- Your filing status, in case your marital or filing status has changed.
- Your signature, to make sure it’s there.
What you can do next
- Make sure that you’re considering the potential tax implications of your investments. Learn more about investment advice at Schwab.
- Talk to a financial professional. Find a Schwab Financial Consultant or visit a branch near you.
- If your tax situation is complicated, you may want to consult a tax professional.