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Overspenders to Face Tax Audits?

posted by Katie Porter

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported on a new effort by the IRS to catch tax cheats. The IRS is going to compare data on mortgage-interest payments provided by financial institutions with homeowners' declarations of income on tax returns. The idea is that people must have more income than they reported to the IRS if they are able to make their mortgage payments, the bulk of which for homeowners with new loans from purchase or refinance, will be payments toward interest. Using data from 2005, the Treasury inspector general said that "tens of thousands of homeowners who paid more than $20,000 in mortgage interest" reported income that appeared "insufficient" to have covered their mortgage payments and basic living expenses. I don't doubt that fact, but I see an alternate hypothesis to explain the situation. These families are accurately reporting their income, but they are just spending more than they earn. They have houses they cannot afford, and they use Capital One to finance their basic living expenses so their income dollars can go to mortgage payments. Back in 2003-005 when these data were gathered, the credit market was loose and many families made up shortfalls in monthly living using credit cards, or in some instances, doing a cash-out refinance, and then living off the cash, expecting the housing market to sustain this strategy. Relying on debt to make ends meet has always carried risks, including bankruptcy risk. Should we add the risk of a tax audit to the reasons that families need to keep income and expenses in alignment?

Comments

I don't see a problem with the IRS's strategy. The IRS has identified a red flag. If the IRS is wrong, the taxpayer should be able to justify their payments.

I would anticipate that the IRS would have a way to do a quick check and, if something is amiss, it could then do a more extensive audit.

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