Personal Finance

When is it safe to scrap tax records?

We are still a paper nation.

Despite technological advances, we continue to use a lot of paper. And a lot of it is stuffed in closets, file cabinets and shopping bags. And, for some of us, stacked on our floors.

This year, I’ve been encouraging people to participate in my #NoDebtNoMess Color of Money Challenge. It started with assessing the mess in your home and in your finances. The second week dealt with reducing redundancy, such as paying off and then closing credit card accounts you don’t need.

This week, we are focusing on lightening your load. For me, this means addressing the paper load I’m carrying. I have pay stubs from decades ago. I keep receipts and instruction manuals for items I no longer own. This paper has got to go.

But to be sure I keep what I truly need, I asked some professionals for advice on what documents should be retained.

Let’s start with tax records. Brent Neiser, a certified financial planner and a senior director at the National Endowment for Financial Education, offered these guidelines:

▪  Keep tax records up to seven years after the return is filed.

▪  If you fail to file in any year, or if the IRS has found you filed something fraudulent, you’d better save your records indefinitely.

▪  Keep business, real estate and investment purchase records until seven years after you’ve sold the asset and included the sale in a tax return.

▪  Keep your tax returns indefinitely. A return is “a window into you and your family’s economic history,” Neiser said. “It shows the big employment, investment, charitable, spending choices and decisions you made.”

Maintaining years of tax returns can help if you ever need to research payments made into Social Security, said Michael Eisenberg, a Los Angeles-based certified public accountant and member of the financial literacy commission for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

Save receipts for big-ticket items such as a TV or computer for insurance purposes. Hold on to each receipt as long as you own the item.

Don Grant, a CFP from Wichita, gave this advice regarding credit card statements: “It’s nice to see a monthly itemization, but most credit card companies will provide you with a year-end statement that has all expenses categorized. It you’re happy with that, shred [the monthly statements] at the end of the year.”

When it comes to home improvement documents, Kelley Long, a Chicago-based CPA and CFP, says hold on to them at least until you sell.

“If you sell your home for more than $250,000 ($500,000 for married people) more than you originally paid, you will have a taxable gain,” Long said. “You can add the cost of any improvements to the original amount you paid to reduce the amount of the gain.”

On medical bills, she said: “If you paid a medical expense with your health savings or flexible spending account, you need to keep the receipt for three years. Consider it a tax-related document.”

As for investment and real estate records, “there’s some gray area here,” said Long, who is part of AICPA’s consumer advocacy group. “But any investment statements that are available online do not need to also be kept as paper. The most important reason to maintain these records would be to establish your cost basis when selling to make sure you claim the proper capital gain or loss on your tax return.”

There are what Long referred to as “forever documents,” which you should keep in a safe location where they are protected from damage, loss and theft. Such documents, which may be hard or costly to replace, include:

▪  Birth certificates and adoption papers

▪  Marriage license and divorce documents

▪  Wills

▪  Death certificates

▪  Military records

▪  End-of-year pay stubs

▪  Mortgage, student and car-loan payoff statements. If you negotiated to pay less on a debt you owed, keep the document proving you paid off that loan.

The NEFE has a noncommercial financial education site where you can find more information about record keeping. Go to smartaboutmoney.org and search for “How Long Should You Keep Financial Documents.”

All the experts recommended scanning documents to reduce your paper load.

“I have instructed all of my clients to search for a place in the cloud that they feel comfortable storing all of these documents in a password-protected vault,” said Brad Ledwith, a CFP from Silicon Valley. “If they secure storage of files in the cloud, then the questions of how long to keep things are moot.”

Now that I know, I’m ready to let go.

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