Audits by Mail

Most of the time, the IRS accepts tax returns as filed. However, it selects some for audit to determine if income, expenses, and/or credits are being reported accurately.

If your return was selected for audit, it doesn’t automatically mean something is wrong. Once the IRS completes the examination, it may accept your return as filed or propose changes. These changes may affect the amount of tax you owe (a proposed deficiency) or the size of your refund.

There are two common ways to be audited – by mail, or in person. This article deals with an audit by mail - where the IRS sends you a letter explaining your return has been selected for examination and identifying the items under review. The letter will outline:

  • What documentation you need to provide 
  • Where to send it
  • Who to contact with questions

Download the full IRS Publication 3498-A, The Examination Process (Examinations by Mail)  

Read the letter and follow the instructions.

Compare the changes proposed in the letter to your tax return to make sure you and the IRS are starting from the same point, with the same figures. Review the letter and any attachments to find out what information you need to gather.

If it appears there’s a difference between any paperwork you have and what the IRS is asking for, ask the employee whose name is on your notice.

Submit all documentation requested by the due date given in the letter.

  • Do not send original documents – send copies.
  • If you fax the information, include your name and Social Security number on each page. This will help the IRS associate all of your documents with your file.

If you don’t understand what to provide:

  • Call the number on your letter.
  • Write to the IRS at the address shown on the letter.
  • Visit your local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.
  • Obtain professional assistance (from an attorney, certified public accountant, or tax professional). You can also see if you qualify for assistance from a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Once the IRS’s initial review is complete, it will:

  • Accept your original return as filed,
  • Ask you to send more information, or
  • Propose changes to your return.

For more information about what happens next, see How will this affect me? (below)  

If the IRS ends up accepting your tax return as originally filed, you’re done. If it proposes changes, a few things can happen.

If the IRS does not accept your documentation for your tax return, you’ll get a letter explaining any proposed changes.

Contact the IRS at the number shown on the letter if you don’t understand the changes. If you do understand them, decide if you agree or disagree with some or all of the changes

If you agree with all of the proposed changes:

  • Sign the agreement page of the letter.
    • If you owe any additional tax, penalties, and interest, you should pay it then, so the IRS won’t charge you any more interest. (If you can’t afford to pay the complete amount, consider other payment plans, or contact the IRS to discuss options.
    • If the proposed changes result in a refund, you can generally expect to receive it in 6 to 8 weeks (provided you have no other unpaid tax obligations or other debts the IRS collects).

If you don’t agree with some or all of the proposed changes:

  • Do not sign the agreement.
    • Respond to the IRS by the due date on the letter. This could include sending additional documentation or an explanation to support your position. 
    • If you need more time to submit your response, call the number on letter before the due date to ask for additional time. 

 If the examiner still proposes a change to your return, you can:

    • Request an informal conference with the examiner’s manager prior to the response date in the letter.
    • Request a conference with the IRS Office of Appeals prior to the date in the letter. Make this request in writing. Include your reasons for disagreeing with the IRS.

If you don’t respond by the due dates on the letters, the IRS may disallow what you claimed on your return and issue a Statutory Notice of Deficiency. This is a legal notice that the IRS is proposing an additional deficiency (balance due). It gives you 90 days to petition the United States Tax Court for review of your case. (If your address is outside the United States, you would have 150 days.). 

Once you have petitioned the Tax Court, if you have not already had a conference with the Office of Appeals, the IRS Office of Chief Counsel may forward your case to Appeals for a conference.

Both the Office of Appeals and the United States Tax Court are generally “prepayment forums” which means that you can dispute the proposed adjustment before the IRS assesses it.

The 90-day (or 150-day) deadline to file a petition in Tax Court cannot be extended. If you miss the deadline, you will not be able to have a judge review your case without first paying the amount due. The 90 or 150 days does not include as the last day a Saturday, a Sunday, or a legal holiday in the District of Columbia. 

Publication 3498-A The Examination Process (Audits by Mail)

Publication 5 Your Appeal Rights and How To Prepare a Protest If You Don't Agree

Low Income Taxpayer Clinics

U.S. Tax Court

Have a different tax issue? Browse common issues and situations at Get Help.

Is your tax problem more complex? If your issue is causing you financial hardship, you have tried repeatedly and are not receiving a response from the IRS, or you feel your taxpayer rights are being violated, consider contacting Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS).

Do you feel that you need help from a tax professional but can’t afford one? You may be eligible for representation from an attorney, certified public accountant (CPA), or enrolled agent associated with a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Last modified July 5, 2016