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Your Important Papers: What, Why, and How Long to Keep – 9.165   Arrow divider image - marks separation between nested pages that are listed as breadcrumbs.

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By N. Porter and L. Kubin* (8/13)

Quick Facts…

  • A systematic plan for keeping track of important documents can save you hours of anxious searching for misplaced items.
  • It is important to carefully store valuable papers which would be difficult or timeconsuming to replace. These hard-to-replace documents are ideally kept in a safe deposit box or a fire-proof, water-proof, burglar-proof home safe or lock box.
  • Electronically stored records must be legible, readable, and accessible for the period of limitations required. It is important to back up electronic files in case of a computer malfunction.
  • Wherever you live there is always the risk of fires, floods, and other disasters, and your home and important documents could be totally destroyed. Assemble a ‘Grab-n-Go’ emergency bucket, box, tote, backpack, or electronic storage device (USB ‘jump’ drive) to have available on short notice.

Important papers prove certain events occurred and they are used to document financial transactions. They may be needed at various times during one’s life. For example, a birth certificate is used to prove age when starting school, to obtain a driver’s license, or to apply for Social Security benefits. It is also needed by relatives to obtain a death certificate. Financial records are the key to your credit standing, essential to helping save money on income taxes owed, and provide an indication of your financial progress through life.

A systematic plan for keeping track of important documents can save you hours of anxious searching for misplaced items. It can also help you reduce the amount of nonimportant papers cluttering your home.

Valuable papers can be sorted into two types: those needed for day-to-day use and those needed occasionally. Examples of valuable papers used frequently include a driver’s license, credit cards, health insurance card, bank account records, identification card, and special health documentation such as for allergies, disabling conditions, and blood type. Examples of valuable papers used occasionally include birth, marriage, and death certificates; deeds; leases; contracts; insurance policies; military papers; divorce decrees; Social Security records; and wills.

It is important to carefully store valuable papers which would be difficult or timeconsuming to replace. These include items like original birth and marriage certificates and property titles. These hard-to-replace documents are ideally kept in a safe deposit box or a fire-proof, water-proof, burglarproof home safe or lock box. Other important records may be filed at home or carried in a wallet or purse. These records and papers are those needed for identification purposes or for emergency medical treatment.

People often keep a combination of paper and digital records. Digital records are kept by storing electronic images on an electronic storage system like a computer hard drive or portable drive. According to the IRS (See IRS Publication #552, ‘Record-keeping for Individuals’) all requirements applying to hard copy records also apply to electronic storage systems which maintain tax books and records. Electronically stored records must be legible, readable, and accessible for the period of limitations required (see Chart 1). It is important to back up electronic files in case of a computer malfunction.

Regardless of how records are stored, regular filing and review of documents is important. Making the decision on when to discard old files is often difficult. Chart 1 lists records and important papers typically needed and why they are important. The chart also provides guidelines on how long records should be kept.

Because every household may have unique situations, there is space for additional records at the end. Due to the danger of identity theft consider destroying any documents you decide are outdated. It is important to shred or safely burn documents which contain your name, address, Social Security number, debit/credit card numbers, or other sensitive financial information.

Having your important papers organized and accessible can help you in many ways. If you are meeting with an attorney or financial adviser, you can prepare for the discussion and perhaps reduce the total cost of the consultation. If something should happen to you, it allows a loved one or trusted designee to readily locate durable and health-care powers of attorney, insurance policies, medical records, estate plans, and outstanding bills. See the eXtension web page ‘Organize Your Important Household Papers’ for more information.

Wherever you live there is always the risk of fires, floods, and other disasters, and your home and important documents could be totally destroyed. Prepare yourself so you can minimize the impact. Assemble a ‘Grab-n-Go’ emergency bucket, box, tote, backpack, or electronic storage device (USB ‘jump’ drive) to have available on short notice. This emergency pack should contain hard copies or electronic images of important papers to quickly take when evacuating: credit and banking information; driver’s licenses; birth certificates; insurance information including auto, health, medical, and home; important medical information such as medication and immunization records; personal property inventory with photos or videos; list of usernames and passwords for accounts accessed on the Web. See fact sheet 9.156, Financial Emergency Preparedness for a form to complete with this important information. It is recommended that you also have an extra set of keys for your autos, home, safety deposit box or safe; and enough cash to purchase fuel for auto, food, toiletries, and lodging for several days.

Chart 1. Important papers: what, why, and how long to keep?

What? Why? How Long?
(Recommended)
Bank Records
Cancelled checks*
Bank statements
Deposit slips
List of account numbers
Savings account statements
Proof of payment of bills, tax claims*
Provides monthly/annual financial record
Comparison with bank statements
Information for family members, tax claims
3–6 years*
2 years
3–6 months
3–6 years
While in force, plus 3-6 years*
Bills (current)
Unpaid bills
Charge account slips
Utility bills
To insure prompt payment, to track utility usage Until payment is documented (future bill shows payment)
Church Records
Baptismal, confirmation, and membership records Reference and information for family members Permanently
Citations
Record of traffic violations, accidents Reference and documentation 3 years after violation or accident
Credit Card Records
Credit card numbers
Creditor’s contact information including payment address
Credit card term disclosure
Credit card statements
Photocopy of front and back of all cards
Proof of transactions, credit, and contract terms
For notification of creditors and replacement in case of loss or payment notification is delayed
Income tax deductions (non-consumer credit)
Until all listed credit cards expire or are canceled and destroyed
While in force, plus 3-6 years*
Until paid or permanently for items in personal property inventory
Debt Records
Installment contracts
List of creditor names, payment and billing error notification addresses, and other contact information
Contracts, promissory notes, liens
Final payment documentation
Proof of terms of transactions, income tax deductions (non-consumer credit)
Address for billing error notification may be different than general addresses
While in force plus 3-6 years*
Review periodically, revise as necessary
Education Records
Diplomas
Professional certificates
Professional licenses
Transcripts
For employment references and/or admission to training programs or educational institutions Permanently
Farm or Other Business Records Analysis of farm or business enterprise
Income tax preparation
Up to 6 years*
Financial Planning
Financial goals
Income/expense records
Net worth statements
Account books
Credit reports
List of financial advisers and contact information
Written financial goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely
Document progress toward goal achievement
Reference and comparison
Update as needed
Genealogy (family tree) Reference for family members Permanently
Health Records (family members)
Immunization records
Medical history and information
Organ donor card
School admission, passport, reference for family members Permanently
Housing Records
Record of land transfer taxes, price paid, closing, selling costs
Title insurance policy
Deeds, mortgage
Improvement receipts
Utility deposits
To calculate basis and capital gains or losses when property is sold, support income tax deductions and basis in residential replacements During ownership (plus 3-6 years after taxable disposition of property)*
Income and Employment Records
Employee benefit information, report
Pension records from prior employers
Reference for income tax (including annual IRS form W-2), Social Security, and retirement contributions and benefits, work history 6 years to permanently
Permanently
Income Tax Records
Federal and state income tax returns, all forms, and supporting data
Annual W-2s, 1099 forms
Receipts for taxable items (interest & dividends, records of capital gains, losses)
Receipts for tax-deductible items (interest paid, child and medical care, donations, business expenses, real estate and personal property taxes, casualty losses)
Proof of filing and payment
Support claims if return is audited
3-6 years* or permanently
Insurance Policies**
List of policy numbers
Names of insured, beneficiaries
Issuing company, agent, type, amount of coverage; copies of policies
Reference for kinds and amounts of coverage Records of payments, premiums, and claims
For periodic updating of coverage and/or payment of claims
Until collected, expires, or all claims are settled
Update as necessary
Investment Records
Certificates of deposit
Investment certificates: stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate
Transaction slips (price, broker’s purchase, sales statements)
Proof of purchase, statement of earnings and transactions Until maturity, redemption, or sold
Until annual summary is received (keep longer for tax purposes if statements show a gain or loss
Update as necessary for tax purposes
Net Worth Statement For overall list of financial assets and liabilities, tracks financial progress and assists in future financial planning decisions Update annually
Personal Documents
Birth certificates, adoption papers, marriage license, divorce papers, alimony, child support awards, military service, Veteran’s benefits, passports, Social Security documents, driver’s license numbers, death certificates, citizenship and naturalization papers, copyrights, patents For identification
Reference for family members
To document events as needed
Ownership rights
Permanently
Update passport every 10 years
Personal Property Inventory
List of items, description, serial numbers, price paid, date, estimated current value, photos, videos
Appraisals
Vehicle titles and bills of sale
Reference and information for family members,
documentation for insurance claims
Revise annually (especially when new items are acquired or when items are sold or discarded
Until vehicle is sold
Pet Records
Health and immunizations
License records
Pedigree
Identification, health Until death of pet or transfer of ownership
Property Records
Property appraisals
Easements
Mineral and surface leases
Proof of payment, tax preparation, future reference 3-6 years or permanently*
Receipted Bills and Sales Slips (tax deductible items) Proof of paid bills, support income tax claims, proof of ownership for property insurance claims** 3-6 years*
During ownership**
Permanently if proof of purchase for item on personal property inventory
Rental Records
Copy of lease, rental agreement
Move in checklist
Pictures showing move-in condition
Reference and information, proof of condition Until you move, all claims are settled, security deposit is returned
Retirement and Pension Plans
Reference and information, proof of employer-employee contributions, payments and benefits received or payable While in force or fund is exhausted
Safe Deposit Box
List of contents in home file Reference and information for family members, documentation for insurance settlement in case of loss (fire or theft)*** Update as needed
Subscriptions/Memberships
Titles, renewal dates
Membership details, renewal dates
Reference
Determine renewal dates
Update as needed
Warranties and Guarantees
Owner manuals Reference and information, service, adjustments of defects of equipment or parts During ownership
Wills
Copy of will
Trust documents
Letter of last instructions
Durable Power of Attorney
Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care
Medical Directives (living will)
List of locations of important documents, names, contact information of personal & legal advisers
Burial lot deeds
Reference, essential for settlement of estate
Instructions for family members
Gives others power to make financial decisions
Gives others power to make medical decisions when you are unable to make decisions
Reference specifying end-of-life care, instructions to doctors, hospital, nursing facility, hospice, home health agency, and family members
Proof of ownership
Permanently, update as needed
Other (list)
Other (list)
Other (list)
*Note: The Internal Revenue Service has three (3) years to audit Federal income tax returns (or two years from the date the tax was paid, whichever is later). However, this limit does not apply in ‘unusual’ cases. If an amount of income which should have been reported was not, and it is more than 25 percent of the income shown on the return, the period of limitation does not expire until six (6) years after the return was filed. There is no time limitation when a return is false or fraudulent, or when no return is filed. (See IRS Publication #552, ‘Record-keeping for Individuals’).
While you do not have to keep all possible financial records for tax purposes, if audited you will want to have cancelled checks or other verification of payment relating directly to entries on your tax return. In some cases, it is advantageous to keep records longer than the recommended period. For example, when selling your principal residence and claiming the capital gains exclusion allowed by the IRS, documentation of original purchase price and capital improvements may be required.
**Check with your insurance agent /broker for company requirements of proof of purchase and/or ownership of real and personal property in the event an insurance claim is filed. (In some cases, payment receipts are required; in other cases a written inventory and/or photographs is adequate documentation.)
***Contents of a safe deposit box usually are not covered by Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance. Check with your insurance agent/broker regarding coverage under your homeowner’s insurance policy or to determine if other coverage provisions are available.
*N. Porter, Colorado State University Extension specialist, financial resource management; L. Kubin, Colorado State University Extension county director, Larimer. 8/2013

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