Study: 1 in 4 Americans Afraid They Will Be Audited by the IRS

Stressed man looking at computer

The internal revenue code can be intimidating for many Americans, especially those who prepare their own taxes. Tax law can be complex and fluctuations each year (whether a minor adjustment or major reform) make it hard to stay up to date with the latest developments. Common myths and misconceptions about taxes may also make it hard to unravel the perplexities of the system.

To find out how confident Americans are with their understanding of the U.S. tax code, we surveyed 2,000 people about their tax literacy. Major takeaways include:

  • 1 in 5 keep their tax records for over 16 years.
  • 33% over the age of 65 reported fears of being audited in their lifetime.
  • Men are 12% more fearful of getting audited than women.

Ultimately, we found that while the chances of being audited by the IRS are surprisingly low, the fear of being audited is still present. It’s a valid concern, given that an IRS audit can be costly and time consuming. Of the 1.1 million audits conducted in 2017, more than 96 percent resulted in additional taxes exceeding $28 billion.

We’ll address whether these fears are justified, and clarify some misunderstandings about how long to keep tax records.

Majority of Americans are unaware of how long they should save their tax records

Our survey indicates that there is widespread uncertainty about the length of time that tax records should be saved. Women above the age of 55 are more likely to err on the side of caution, while men of the same generation may not keep their records long enough. Since record retention guidelines have changed over the years, it’s really no wonder that there is some confusion on the matter, especially for older Americans.

How prepared are Americans to be audited by the IRS

  • Men ages 55+ are 32% more likely than women to discard tax records within less than three years.
  • Women 55+ are 34% more likely to save their tax records between 4 and 11 years compared to men.
1 in 5 Americans keep their tax records for over 16 years

The truth is, there’s really no hard and fast answer. The IRS recommends you save your tax records anywhere from three years to indefinitely. The basic explanation is that you should keep your records for three years, generally how far the IRS will look back if they conduct an audit. The time frame is longer if you are a self-employed individual, and you may want to keep employment records and those pertaining to assets like your home for longer.

However, many experts recommend that you retain your documentation indefinitely. Although being audited is unlikely, it’s still important to be prepared. Since 70 percent of audits were conducted via mail correspondence in 2017, detailed documentation is vital.

Especially now that tax returns can be stored electronically, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You may need to prove that a return was filed. If the IRS is missing a copy of your tax return, there is the assumption that one was never filed and the statute of limitations doesn’t apply.

25% are afraid of an IRS audit

According to our recent survey, only a quarter of Americans are concerned about receiving an IRS audit letter. While this number may be low, it increases for males and the elderly. Should Americans be more concerned about getting audited by the IRS?

The chances of receiving an audit are low. As our senators and congressmen continue to compound the complexity of the tax code, IRS audits are becoming less common. In the 2017 fiscal year, the IRS received 196 million tax returns and only audited 0.5 percent, down from 0.6 percent in 2016.

However, certain factors may make the IRS pay more attention to you tax returns. For example, if you are in a higher tax bracket, if you claim higher-than-average deductions, or if you own foreign assets. As long as you have the documentation to back your numbers up, you don’t have to worry. Math errors may result in an inquiry, but generally won’t lead to a full audit.


Despite changing roles, Pew Research shows that men are still seen as financial providers. The majority of Americans say that a man should be able to financially support a family, whereas roughly a third say the same about women. With these beliefs at play, mean may feel an increased pressure to protect their families from the financial consequences of a filing a return incorrectly and being audited.

The baby boomers are in the midst of dealing with personal finance issues such as retirement and downsizing. It’s no surprise that they would be concerned about finding themselves in a situation where they owe the IRS money. They also grew up in a world where Americans were paid much higher levels of taxes than we do today, and they experienced the high audit rate of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

1 out of every 3 Americans over the age of 65 reported fears of being audited in their lifetime

In line with these concerns, a 2008 NerdWallet tax survey found that fewer baby boomers attempt to reduce their tax bill with illegal activities (such as underreporting income) than other generations. 90% of baby boomers take care to follow the rules, further reducing their chances of receiving an IRS audit letter.

Considering the average life expectancy is 78 years old in the U.S. and the current audit rate by the IRS is 0.5 percent, the fears of the average senior citizen being audited are unwarranted.

While most tax audits are targeted, there is a small chance you could be randomly selected for an audit. So, if the odds of getting audited happen to fall out of your favor, how does an audit impact your credit? If you fail to correspond with the IRS or worse, fail to pay the IRS, a tax lien will be levied against you. If you owe taxes in excess of $10,000 the IRS will immediately report this, which will negatively impact your credit score.

The possibility of a tax audit can be scary, but you can rest assured that should it happen and your credit score takes a dip, it is still possible to recover your good credit with a little planning and patience.