What to do if you get a letter from the IRS

Worried young man sitting at his kitchen table and reading a letter from the IRS.Image: Worried young man sitting at his kitchen table and reading a letter from the IRS.

In a Nutshell

The only mail you really want to receive from the IRS is a big, fat refund check. But sometimes you’ll get a letter that could be bad news. Here’s what you need to know about responding to an IRS letter.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

This article was fact-checked by our editors and reviewed by Christina Taylor, MBA, senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma.

You may rarely use snail mail, but it’s still the IRS’ preferred way of initiating contact with taxpayers when there’s a question about their federal income tax return or other issue.

Ideally, communication with the IRS is straightforward. You send your completed tax return by the filing deadline, and within a few weeks it sends you any refund you’re owed. If you e-file your taxes and request a direct deposit of your refund, the communication process is even faster and simpler.

However, sometimes the IRS will send a letter to let you know there’s a hitch in the communication process. It’s important to note that the IRS will not contact you by email or social media. If you receive that kind of contact from someone claiming to be an IRS representative, be wary of a scam.

Why am I getting this letter?

Of course, your first fear when receiving a letter from the IRS is probably that you’re being audited. And mail is, in fact, how the IRS would notify you if you were being audited.

However, a letter from the IRS isn’t always a warning that you’re being audited. It also could be a request for more information.

You might get an IRS letter or notice for several reasons other than an audit, including:

  • You owe money.
  • Your refund is going to be larger or smaller than you thought it would be.
  • The agency has a question about the tax return you filed.
  • It needs additional information about your tax return.
  • It needs to verify your identity.
  • It made corrections or changes to your tax return.
  • It wants to let you know the processing of your return will be delayed.

How do I know if this letter is legit?

Scammers realize the threat of IRS action can be a powerful motivator.

Knowing the IRS won’t initiate an action over email or social media can help you spot a scam that uses one of those approaches. However, when you get a letter (or, very occasionally, a call), it may be more difficult to recognize fake versus real.

The IRS recommends you be aware of tactics that it will never use but that are favorites of scammers, such as:

  • Angry demands for immediate payment.
  • Threats to have you arrested for non-payment.
  • Demands that you pay without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount it claims you owe.
  • Requiring you to use a specific payment method, like a prepaid debit card, without giving you other payment options. The IRS provides multiple ways to pay your tax bill.
  • Asking you to phone in a credit or debit card number for payment.

If you’re still unsure whether the letter you received is legitimate, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. You can also learn more about distinguishing fraudulent contacts from legitimate ones at the IRS website.

What should I do with this letter from the IRS?

If you’re confident the letter you received really is from the IRS, you do need to pay attention to it.

Most likely, the letter will be about a specific issue related to your tax return or tax account. It may ask you to provide more information or notify you of a change or correction the IRS made to your return or account. Or, the letter could tell you that you owe money, explain why and how much you owe, and provide details on when and how to pay.

Notices typically have specific instructions. Reading your letter carefully should help you understand what you need to do next, such as make an additional payment.

Sometimes you won’t need to do anything at all. For example, if the letter is notifying you of a change or correction the IRS made to your tax return, and you agree with the change, you might not need to do anything.

If you disagree with the change, send a letter explaining why you disagree, and include any information or documents that support your position. Also be sure to include any tear-off portion of the notice. You might need to be patient because it typically takes at least 30 days for the IRS to respond.

The IRS says you won’t need to call it for most notices. However, if you do decide to call the number listed on the notice, be sure to have your tax return and the notice in hand before you call.

Finally, always keep copies of any notices you receive and any written responses you make with your tax records.

Bottom line

Getting a letter from the IRS is no reason to panic. Read the letter thoroughly, take steps to verify it really is from the IRS and then follow the letter’s instructions. An accurate and timely response can help you resolve issues with the least amount of stress.

Christina Taylor is senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma. She has more than a dozen years of experience in tax, accounting and business operations. Christina founded her own accounting consultancy and managed it for more than six years. She co-developed an online DIY tax-preparation product, serving as chief operating officer for seven years. She is the current treasurer of the National Association of Computerized Tax Processors and holds a bachelor’s in business administration/accounting from Baker College and an MBA from Meredith College. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: With nearly 30 years of experience in media, marketing, public relations and journalism, Evelyn’s written about nearly everything — from newspaper accounts of salacious capital murder trials to whitepapers on what typ… Read more.