Most Illinois tax professionals could tell at a glance whether a small business is likely to be chosen for a sales tax audit. Here are some of the things we know.

A Few Things To Know About State of Illinois Sales Tax Enforcement and Audit Techniques for Small Businesses.

Most Illinois tax professionals can tell at a glance whether a small business is at risk for an Illinois sales tax audit. Here are some of the reasons.

Despite the changes in the way people work which occurred in the last few years, the State of Illinois continues being able to enforce it’s tax law, possibly now more aggressively than ever. Illinois has created a very efficient system of tax compliance and enforcement, to process returns and the related funds, as well as to resolve questionable items which come up in the course of doing the processing. This system includes performing direct business audits as necessary to maintain compliance. At the current time, due to the lasting effects of the pandemic, State auditors are still not generally performing on-site audits, audits in which they travel to the business location and review business records in-person, as they did pre-pandemic. Instead, the State is having its personnel conduct audits away from the business locations, generally from the State auditor’s home. In this regard the State of Illinois Department of Revenue is doing an excellent (if painful) job, in comparison to most other taxing authorities, of making sure that their employees are able to work from home. The State is making sure their auditors have the equipment, the programs, the authority and the guidance to continue their work. In some cases the State being more aggressive in enforcing the law than it had been in the past. This is perhaps to offset the impediments caused by the pandemic. As a result you may find that your business becomes the subject of an audit, and when that happens, chances are that the subject of that audit will be Illinois Sales and Use Tax.

The State of Illinois provides an indication of how it selects businesses returns for audit on it’s website (at random, by referral, by nature of business, by past audit history, and by tax issue). While I don’t doubt that the State selects businesses for audit under each of the categories listed, lets just say that based on many years of experience in assisting businesses through audits and their repercussions, like many tax attorneys, I’d put together my own lists of ways in which the State selects returns for audit. I propose that State of Illinois business returns are most commonly selected for audit for one of the following three reasons:

  1. The tax return does not make sense in for the type of business or the location from which the business operates.

2. Some of the tax returns filed by the business do not agree with other tax returns filed by the same business.

3. The tax returns filed by the business do not make sense in light of other information available to the State.

Regarding business whose tax returns do not make sense for the type of business or the area in which they operate, businesses of the same type tend to produce similar financial statements. As a result, businesses such as retail sales companies, restaurants, automobile or equipment sales companies and other entities, may all be expected to have financial statements that are similar to other businesses of the same type, generally surprisingly similar. It is true that businesses can be operated in an entirely differently manner from their competitors or have entirely different results of operation. Each business has its own operating techniques and the level of profitability can vary greatly from one business to the next. There can be “superstar” businesses which have very profitable operations and “low performing” business which don’t do as well. However, tax personnel know, that most businesses of the same type operate in substantially in the same manner, with consistent results for businesses of the same type. Outliers are, by definition, the exception to the rule.

A tax returns where the cost of the payroll, product, food, material or other expenses are not in proportion to sales, or in proportion to the figures reported by similar businesses of the same type in other categories, can be considered to have a “red flag” telling the Department of Revenue that a business is not reporting its income or expenses properly. The Department of Revenue actually uses “rules of thumb” to gauge whether a business is properly reporting its sales. An example is that in regard to sales of food, without knowing anything else about a business, the an auditor would expect to see the gross receipts generated from food sold at a restaurant to be at least three times as much as the amount that is expended on food purchases. A similar rule of thumb would be in effect for liquor, however, in that regard, the three times rule would be the minimum amount the State would expect to be generated.

Another example of a tax returns which “do not make sense” are tax returns which show consistent yearly losses, sometimes very high losses, without showing equally substantially contribution to the business by the owner or investors. Why exactly would any business owner continue, year after year, to operate a business which always loses money? This is a question which the State of Illinois unsurprisingly often determines is worth looking into.

A category of audit which is not mentioned on the State website but which generates audits is where returns file by a business files returns, such as sales tax returns where the total sales reported differs significantly form the cumulative sales reported on the related income tax returns filed by the same business for the same period. When this type of an even occurs, it is frequently the Sales tax returns where the income is understated.

With Sales taxes as high as they are in this State it is understandable that businesses would be tempted to use whatever techniques they can to minimize that cost. Aggressively pursuing this course can result in a variety of incongruities which create problems for the business. Business owners should be aware in particular, that in this State, it does not require a large understatement of tax due before penalties and personal liabilities come into play. To make matters worse, the State Criminal Law has set a low threshold for violations in this area. At times this low threshold can result in selective enforcement depending on which section of the Department of Revenue first becomes interested in the discrepancies. On many occasions it is a disgruntled person, a spouse, business partner or employee who provides the information which initiates the audit. Audits which originate from information presented to the Criminal Division, unsurprisingly, are more likely to result in the business which initiated the inaccurate returns being subject to criminal enforcement.

The final category I will bring up is where the tax returns filed with the State do not make sense in light of other information available to the State. The state is increasingly receiving reports relevant to the operation of individual businesses from third parties. These reports can be reports from gasoline suppliers, credit card companies or other electronic payment service providers, liquor and food distributors and other entities. To the extent this information is not automatically reported to the State, the information can be and regularly is directly requested from the vendor during the course of an audit. Inconsistencies between information provided by third party vendors and information which ends up on a tax return can be costly for a business and its owners as the State is becoming increasingly able to determine the correctness of returns from information it already has. The failure of a businesses returns to match up to information provided to the State by third parties is an area where there is a built in headache for the tax filer. To paraphrase the line from the “Lucy Show” from years ago, at that point you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.

In any event, if your business becomes the subject of a State audit, is a good idea to get professionals involved in mitigating liabilities at a very early point. Operating a business does not automatically carry with it tax expertise and having a third party handle the explanations required by the issues which generated an audit allows business owners to rest more easily and continue to conduct their business, rather than struggle with the complexities of Illinois tax audits.

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