Can the IRS Audit a Deceased Person's Taxes?


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Taxpayers by law must file returns for every year that they are alive and receive taxable income. This obligation does not at the moment that they pass away. 

The IRS has the right to pursue taxes owed by deceased individuals and audit the estates of people who are no longer living. You can protect the estate of a friend or loved one by knowing under what circumstances the IRS can audit a deceased person's taxes.


Time Limitations and Responsibility for Tax Obligation

As with any tax return, the returns of a deceased individual can be targeted for an IRS audit for up to six years after they are filed. In some instances, a return of a person who is no longer alive may be targeted for audit by random computer selection. In other cases, the return may be need to be audited because the deceased individual owes taxes, failed to provide documentation, or engaged in activities like concealment or fraud when filing.

Regardless of the reason for the audit, it is up to the executor or heir of the estate to contend with the proceedings. If you are the child, friend, or extended family of the deceased person, you will not be obligated to pay the taxes or penalties yourself. Rather, the money must come from the estate that you have inherited or for which you are responsible. 

However, if you are the spouse of the deceased and have money or assets identified as community property accrued during the year for which the return was filed, you could be obligated to pay the amount owed to the IRS. The money and assets you have obtained as a widow or widower is exempt from garnishment or liens.

Tax Documentation You Will Need

Because the IRS can audit a deceased person's returns for up to six years after they are filed, it expects you to retain tax documentation that it might need to settle any monetary or legal issues that arise during the proceedings. For example, you are advised to keep records of the deceased's proof of income like:

  • W-2s
  • 1099s
  • bank statements
  • brokerage statements
Likewise, you should keep hold of records of proof payments like:

  • canceled checks
  • credit card statements
  • sales slips
  • receipts
The IRS may want you to provide proof of expenses like:

  • medical bills
  • charitable donations
  • real estate taxes
  • contributions to retirement accounts

You should keep these records for up to seven years before you shred and dispose of them.

Even after seven years, however, you may be unsure of whether or not it is safe to destroy and toss these documents. Before you do so, you may want to consult with a tax professional who can review the records and determine if it is safe to dispose of them. 

Working with a Tax Professional

A tax professional can also be a valuable ally when you are dealing with an audit of an estate or inheritance. You understandably do not want to pay more money than necessary. You also may not be sure what the IRS wants or how you can settle the proceedings to its satisfaction.

A tax professional can be on hand to provide copies of the estate or inheritance records. This individual can also act as your representative and intermediary during the audit so that you can focus on work, family, school, and other daily tasks. 

People are not safe from a tax audit even after death. When you are the heir or executor of an estate, you should learn under what circumstances the IRS can audit it. You also can act in the best interest of the estate and any money or property for which you are responsible by learning for how long to keep important financial and legal documentation.

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