Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA October 15, 2020 8 min read

What Happens During the IRS Audit Process?

You might recall a certain experiment performed by Ivan Pavlov over a century ago using a dog, a bell and food in order to study the salivation response. The results of this experiment brought about an understanding of classical conditioning. 

Classical conditioning is a form of learning in which a conditioned stimulus becomes associated with an unconditioned stimulus in order to produce a conditioned response.” 

When applying this idea to an IRS audit, perhaps we can imagine the conditioned responses from both parties involved. The first one would be an IRS auditor determining line items that don’t add up on a tax return. Ding! The second response would be when the IRS notifies a taxpayer that he is going to be audited. Ding!


The IRS Examination

The IRS Examination is often likened unto and often referred to as the IRS audit function. Typically, the IRS accepts most federal tax returns when filed. However, there are circumstances in which the IRS examines, or “audits,” to determine if reported income, expenses, and credits have been reported accurately by the taxpayer. 

When a taxpayer’s return is selected for examination, it is first randomly chosen by computerized screening; secondly it is selected through audit by a human reviewer who decides the level of audit that the taxpayer’s return will undergo.

If an IRS Examination investigation results in a finding of additional tax owed, whether or not this is intentional or unintentional, the IRS requires the payment of a penalty in addition to the remaining tax obligation. 

IRS Examination determines the due date, if appropriate, for taxes reported by the taxpayer and assesses penalties and interest from the date of assessment. 

The Examination Division also establishes procedures for assessing and collecting tax. For more information about the IRS examination process, review IRS Publication 556: Examination of Returns, Appeal Rights & Refund Claims.


Where does the IRS Examination Begin?

The IRS examination, or audit, process begins in one of ten service centers, which depends upon the location of the taxpayer. The service centers receive taxpayer returns; service center representatives catch errors and enter tax return data. 

The computer matching software the IRS uses reviews the items on the return and matches the information with sources received from other parties such as an employer or third-party filer. A tax return is scored for audit potential and a notice and demand is generated when a taxpayer may be required to pay additional taxes.

If a particular service center is unable to handle a taxpayer’s case, particularly if the taxpayer does not live near the service center, then the case is referred to a revenue agent in a local field office. 


What Does an IRS Revenue Agent Do?

The purpose of the revenue agent is to conduct a more thorough investigation of the taxpayer and the facts and circumstances surrounding their return. In some cases, the revenue agent will ask the taxpayer to come in and discuss their case and also produce supporting documents. 

In other cases, the revenue agent will go to the taxpayer’s home or place of business. The revenue agent then reviews the facts, makes adjustments when appropriate, and issues a “revenue agent’s report,” which is a summary of their findings.

The IRS audit ends when the revenue agent issues a report stating either one of two outcomes. The taxpayer will either receive a no-change letter or a notice of proposed adjustments. 


IRS Deadlines

An IRS audit may not be closed for several months following the date the taxpayer meets with the revenue agent. Throughout the period, the IRS will issue a series of letters and/or notices that require the taxpayer to respond to one or more deadlines. 

These letters and/or notices may come in the forms of thirty-day or ninety-day response times and these documents help to move the case out of the IRS examination function and into IRS collections.

Responding to one or more of these notices is important. Taxpayers are often unaware of the consequences for failing to respond to notices. In addition, the IRS is only required to mail out letters and/or notices, but the agency is not required to make sure that a taxpayer receives the notice. 

In other words, the IRS mails these types of documents to the taxpayer’s last known address, even if the taxpayer no longer resides there.

Your Next Step If You’ve Received an Audit Notice

As a taxpayer receiving a notice to audit from the IRS, I hope that your conditioned response was not sheer panic. If you did your best and were careful or had a good CPA file your tax return, the audit process could be short and sweet. 

The auditors are not out for blood, but they are also not going to be your friends. If you have not reported income or miss taken deductions, they might even be a bit chilly. You will likely need to prepare for some stiff penalties and interest being applied to your bill.

Call my office if you need some help sorting it out. Rather than passively participating in the government’s investigation, or being subject to the whims of an auditor with an agenda — and having to pay more than you might be able to afford — call our firm at the out-set. We can provide a swift analysis of your issues, a robust defense, and a skillful handling of all your audit-related issues. Ding!

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Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA

Owner and Director of Legal
Brotman Law



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