Complex tax codes may turn a simple stroke of the pen into a tax fraud charge. If you’re unfamiliar with their intricacies, a mistake could cost you a serious fine or even jail time.

There’s no harm in trying to reduce your tax bill. Even the I.R.S. offers tactics for you to avoid a significant tax burden. Taking advantage of legitimate credits and deductions equals tax avoidance. Whereas someone committing tax fraud would falsify or omit information altogether.

If you find yourself on the wrong side of the line between tax avoidance and tax fraud, you can use these defenses to help your case.

Negligence

A tax error only qualifies as fraud if the prosecution can prove that you willfully hid assets. If you have multiple streams of income, keeping track of them all is difficult. If you’ve accidentally omitted a key figure from your taxes, citing negligence may reduce a larger penalty to a smaller one.

Error

You may be able to avoid serious charges if they stem from a preparer’s errors – willful or not. In these instances, your tax preparer may be liable for any filing mistakes. As recourse, you can file a complaint through the I.R.S., which shifts misplaced liability to the proper party. If you find yourself in this situation, working with a criminal defense professional can help you make sense of its complexities.

Time

Time limits for auditing taxes exist. Usually, the I.R.S. cannot conduct an audit on cases older than six years. For audits involving small discrepancies, that time limit drops to three years. One exception to this rule is if you’ve failed to file income taxes at any time or have filed an altered return. The I.R.S. can also audit and charge unreported foreign income outside this limit.

Tax fraud charges and their repercussions might scare you. In cases of mistakes and delayed accusations, the consequences can become less severe. Knowing the difference between fraud and avoidance, too, can help you from facing a similar situation in the future.