But not every notice or letter means that the IRS is after you. Some letters are just asking for clarification on your income tax calculation. How do you distinguish between the normal correspondence and the scary ones? Let's take a stab at it, briefly in this small overview.
You received a letter from the IRS asking you to explain something: Ah, the "Correspondence Examination." Relax. Although it is an audit, it's a mild one, just asking you to explain something in your income tax calculation.
The IRS asks you to come in to their office: This is called the "Office Audit." Read the letter the IRS sent you and familiarize yourself with the scope of this audit. The Agent will probably ask you a series of questions. If, for any reason, the Agent goes beyond the scope of the letter, politely tell the Agent that you are not prepared to answer these questions. Don't be a jerk to the IRS Agent. Remember that they have the power to make things very easy for you, if they want to. At any time in the interview, you have the right to ask to consult with an attorney.
The IRS asks you to provide details about your financial status: Okay, now it might be time to start worrying. Start calling around for the name of a good tax advisor. The IRS might be investigating you for something deeper.
The IRS has issued a summons: DO NOT IGNORE THIS! First, immediately seek counsel from a tax attorney. You should probably comply with the summons, even if you don't think it's proper.
You receive a letter from IRS Collections: This might be a letter stating that the IRS has filed a tax lien on your property, or it might be a letter stating that the IRS plans to levy your property. Do not ignore this notice. You have certain rights to contest these liens and levies. Sometimes, the letter will describe these rights.
You receive a "Notice of Deficiency": This is a time sensitive letter. You have 90 days from the date of this letter to file a petition in Tax Court. At this point, you need to gather all of your relevant documents, including your Income tax return, and make that appointment with your tax advisor.
This list is just a basic list. When in doubt, look at the instructions on the IRS letter. Take a peek at the notice number in the top right-hand corner and look it up on the IRS website.
Understanding your IRS Notice or Letter (IRS)
8 Things to Know If You Receive an IRS Notice (IRS)