April 15th is coming, and what are you doing about it? I know what you want to do—buy an Uzi, drape a bunch of ammo belts over your chest, and go charging into the IRS office like Rambo, spraying exploding bullets all over the place.
We all enjoy variations on that daydream. But as the evil date approaches, most of us put our dreams aside, sigh wistfully, and turn into gutless wimps. I'm as disgusted with the whole business as you, but let's not get into that. Instead, let's pull out those hideous-looking tax forms, throw up a time or two from pure, justifiable revulsion, and get down to work.
This will be your last tax return filed under the old tax code, so make it a good one. "What?" you say. "A good tax return? There's no such thing!"
Or is there? In a way, there is. Tax returns are bad experiences, like diseases. You can catch the flu and then recover; you can catch herpes and live with it forever, or you can catch AIDS—and die. There are no good diseases, but if someone pointed a gun at your head and forced you to pick one of the above, you'd pick the flu.
Well, the IRS is pointing a gun at you, so what'll it be? Nasal congestion, or the big sleep? The choice is simple. A good tax return is one that's over and done with, once and for all, like a bad case of the flu. It doesn't come back to haunt you, like herpes, and it shouldn't become your total ruination, like you-know-what.
Remember, an audit costs you plenty in anguish and professional fees, in addition to the risk that they'll find what you're hoping they'll never look at. So it's just plain dumb to do something flamboyant and bring the roof down on your head.
A good tax return is one that's never audited. No matter what you did during the year, no matter how many crazy chances you take on your return, if you're never audited for that year, it's over. And in a perverted sense, it's a victory.
But remember, the statute of limitations on tax fraud never expires, so even if you follow my advice and try to audit proof your returns, don't get carried away with the euphoria of imaginary immunity.
As long as this wicked system is with us, no one is safe. But some people can make themselves safer than others.
How? Well, there's no sure way to be audit-proof, because even if your return looks perfectly innocent, there's a (very small) chance that it may be selected at random and audited. But aside from that, here are some ideas you may find useful:
This is the last year for deducting lots of items—consumer interest, maybe IRA contributions, etc. You've heard all of that. In fact, this may be the last year that you itemize your deductions. Don't blow it by going so overboard that you call unnecessary attention to yourself.
Avoid tax shelters if you can. They're going out of fashion anyway. If you're already into shelters up to your wazoo, you can skip this paragraph, but if you're not, and you're thinking about it for your 1986 return, think again. Returns claiming tax shelter losses are almost guaranteed audit candidates. Even if the shelter works, everything else will get looked at. And you alone know what that could mean.
Try not to have a foreign bank account. Someone with a job in the Midwest who says "Sure, I've got an account in the Caymans," is within his constitutional rights, but he's really begging for an audit.
Declare everything that gets reported to the feds by other people—wages, dividends, interest, brokerage-firm transactions, etc. The feds are getting pretty good at matching up those W-2s and 1099s, so it's dumb to omit such items.
Use the right tax table. That's one of the first things they look for, and if they hit pay-dirt, they'll probably dig deeper.
Check your math. More than once. If they do some routine spot-checking and find an arithmetic error, your return may be flagged for closer scrutiny. But if they look it over, sniff it, notice nothing glaringly amiss, and if the math is right, they may move on to more promising material, and then you're in the clear.
File exactly on time, with no extensions and no amendments—if you can possibly do it. This may be just my personal brand of voodoo, but I always file on April 15th. Even if I've got my return done a month or two ahead of time, I hold it until the last minute. I like to think of the thing arriving at the "Service Center" with tons of others and getting stacked up on the desk of some harried clerk, who just might be so exhausted by the time she gets to me she'll glance at it and say, "What the hell, this one looks okay," then chuck it into the "passed" pile and go on to someone else.
Is that a fantasy? Probably. They space out their work during the year, and filing on April 15th isn't going to reduce the audit odds…but it might, just a teeny weeny bit. So that's what I do.
Speaking of fantasy, who hasn't dreamed of scrawling some message on the check he sends to the IRS? You know what I mean. Wouldn't you just love to grab a red felt-tip and write across the top of the check, "Drink goat phlegm, you commie sleaze-ball!" Yeah. It's tempting.
But don't do it. Some people actually do that sort of thing, and it's certainly understandable (the writing), but it's an invitation to an audit. Don't deface your check, don't deface your return, and don't send them any funny pictures or antitax literature. Just play it straight, and maybe you'll slip through their slimy clutches for another year.
And finally, if you really want to be audit proof, when you write a column like this, use a pen name. I didn't think ahead, and one of these days, I'll probably regret it.
Warren Salomon is an attorney and tax specialist practicing in Miami.