Due to the admittedly complicated nature of the tax code in the United States, the idea that someone might experience issues when filing is not exactly unheard of. Oftentimes people will calculate certain aspects of their returns wrong, fail to submit the necessary paperwork, or something similar. That's part of what amended returns are for - eventually, either you or the IRS will discover the mistake and at that point, things can be properly corrected.
Of course, the chasm between a "minor accident" and "intentional fraud" when it comes to your taxes is a big one, indeed. The latter can get you into a significant amount of trouble and may even venture into criminal territory if you're not careful.
The Case With Criminal Charges and the IRS: What You Need to Know
Whenever this topic comes up, the first question that most people ask involves "What does 'criminal conduct' mean within the context of the IRS, anyway?" The answer, unfortunately, is pretty broad. The government defines it as ANY action you take that violates tax laws or regulations. So if you've claimed a deduction that you weren't entitled to in order to reduce your tax liability, that would be considered criminal conduct. If you underreported your income in an attempt to get a bigger refund, that would be criminal conduct.
Just because that may be true doesn't mean the IRS will prosecute anyone and everyone it finds that falls into this category, however.
Overall, know that the IRS doesn't go to the trouble of pursuing criminal charges for any old taxpayer with a basic filing issue, regardless of how negligent they may be. Ultimately, it will come down to a few different factors including the severity of the issue in question, whether they can prove an intent to defraud, and of course the Statute of Limitations.
To start in the reverse order, know that the Statute of Limitation is the amount of time that the IRS has to legally begin criminal prosecution in the first place. If you haven't filed taxes at all or have underreported your income (and they can prove it), they have six years from the date the correct return was supposed to be in their hands to do anything about it.
If you have a fraudulent return, however - meaning you've intentionally lied about things like your income sources - there is no statute of limitations. So don't make the mistake of assuming you'll be able to "wait them out" on this one.
The IRS will also need to be confident that they'd be able to prove their case should they choose to bring criminal charges. If they suspect something like filing false returns, unpaid taxes, mail fraud, or even bank fraud, the most likely next step will be to begin an investigation. This will likely involve not only the dreaded audit but interviews with yourself and other key witnesses, subpoenas to obtain your financial records like bank statements, and more.
If key evidence is uncovered throughout all this, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the IRS will likely get involved.
Additional Considerations About Your Taxes
Understand that when you're talking about criminal charges and the IRS, this is not a situation to be taken light. The average amount of jail time given to people for tax ovation is between three and five years, for example.
But that's not all - you could also easily get fined up to $100,000 (again, depending on the severity of the crime) or up to $500,000 if you're a corporation. The IRS takes all of this incredibly seriously which means that you need to as well.
In the end, all of this helps to underline the importance of making sure that your taxes are done properly in the first place. Obviously, showing an intent to defraud the federal government when filing your taxes is a situation that you would do well to avoid at all costs. But you also want to guarantee that everything is submitted exactly as it should be and that you've ultimately paid everything you owe (whether you like it or not).
Even if you don't rise to the bar of criminality, underpayments, late payments, and other issues could still get you hit with significant fees and other penalties. If you don't feel like you're able to handle things on your own, don't be afraid to enlist the help of an experienced financial professional to do so on your behalf. That way, you'll be able to rest easy knowing that all matters with the IRS are being taken care of.