Recordkeeping: How to get all that paper under control

It’s spring cleaning time, and that includes your tax paperwork. While it can get a bit confusing, there are some recordkeeping general guidelines that you can follow.

Recordkeeping tips

  • Income tax returns.
    These should be kept indefinitely. You would be amazed how many times the IRS will “lose” a tax return, and
    this is your only way to prove original filing. You should also keep the various backup documents associated with the return, such as W-2 forms, mortgage interest statements, year-end brokerage statements, interest/dividend income statements, etc. This may seem like overkill, but you never know when you might need these documents for other purposes.
  • Supporting documents.
    These are things like cancelled checks, receipts, expense and travel diaries. With respect to retaining these items: three years minimum, five years is better, and seven years is best. How long you keep these records depends on your storage area and audit potential.
  • Stock/bond/mutual fund purchase confirmations.
    These are documents that you need to retain during the time that you own the stock or mutual fund. They can be destroyed 3/5/7 years after the date of the sale of these assets. While many brokers are now reporting your fund purchase price, many records are still unavailable to them, so they cannot report your cost basis. It’s ultimately up to you to prove your cost of these purchases.
  • Real property escrow/title statements.
    These are the documents that you receive when you purchase property. They are provided to you at your property closing by your title agent, escrow agent, or attorney. These are also documents that you need to retain during the time that you own the property in order to prove your purchase price at the time that you sell the property. The ultimate purging of these documents also follows the 3/5/7 year provisions after the date of the sale.

And when you do finally decide to get rid of those old documents, do so carefully. Many documents will carry your social security number, bank/brokerage account number, and other bits of information that could lead to theft of your identity. So make sure that any documents that you get rid of are properly shredded or otherwise completely destroyed.

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