How Long Should You Save Your Tax Returns and Financial Records?

The IRS says that you should normally keep your records for 3 years, and for some situations you should keep them for 6 to 7 years. However, I strongly disagree and here is what you should do and how to do it:

Tax returns: Do you want to know the prudent answer to how long you should save your tax returns? Until you are dead, and even then your heirs should probably keep them until years after the estate is settled. Why should you do this even though the IRS has 3 years to audit your returns and 6 years if you under report more than 25% of your income? Here are several real-world practical reasons:

  1. It is far too common that the State of New Jersey will send a letter to you stating that you never filed a tax return from more than 10 years ago. Additionally, if you are selling your business, trying to obtain a specific license, dissolving a business, or for any number of reasons, then the State will perform research to see if you filed all of your tax returns. Even though the State may be wrong, you will still generally need to file the returns.
  2. Information carries over from year to year. As your tax return becomes more complex, your income tax information tends to carry over for many years, such as investment losses and rental property purchases.
  3. A safe way of storing your tax returns is to keep both digital and hard copies.

Financial records/receipts: What if social security has incorrect information about your earnings from 25 years ago? If you have the actual records then you can prove your case more easily. This includes tax information, such as W-2’s and paystubs. Here are some timeframes based on the types of documents:

  1. Tax documents should be saved forever, just like you save your tax returns. This especially relates to business tax records. Brokerage statements should be included as part of your tax information as they contain purchase price information.
  2. Bank and credit cards statements can be discarded after a few years. However, if they contain tax information or are connected to a business or real estate, then you should save them forever.
  3. Utility bills can be discarded after about 6 months. Sometimes you need these to prove your residency, but the timeframe needed is generally a few months.
  4. ATM and purchase receipts can be discarded once you view the transaction on your bank statement or online. However, when purchasing from a restaurant, you should make sure that the amount after a tip is accounted for actually settles, which can take several days.
  5. Receipts for improvements to your home or for large business purchases should be saved forever.
  6. If you are short on physical space then save your records electronically, but make sure that you have a cloud backup.

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