A common question around the office involves records retention. Many people think they need to keep their tax returns for seven years, others think it is three; both are wrong.
Tax returns are not the only records you need to consider when building a record retention policy in your business and personal life. Some items can safely be disposed after one year; some items need to be kept forever—your estate can handle disposal.
Record retention in the past required filing cabinets filled with papers. The filing cabinets can be—and should be—replaced by digital storage. A fire, theft or weather damage put irreplaceable documents at risk when stored in a filing cabinet. A better solution is to scan all documents into a digital filing cabinet and store a backup copy offsite.
Most banks already provide digital copies of statements and your tax preparer should have no problem providing a digital copy of your return. Your tax preparer is required to provide you with a copy of your tax return and it can be a digital copy. Have your accountant email you a copy or bring a flash drive to their office. Also, many accountants have secure drop boxes built into their website now. For security reasons you may wish to use this method over less secure email. Plus, emails are easier to subpoena for court proceeding.
Security is the biggest concern when storing records. The amount of documentation held by a business is huge. Even a modest household can accumulate a serious amount of paperwork they must retain. Digitizing data is fast and simple. Security of this “fast and simple” data is important because it is just as “fast” and “easy” to steal it. Storing data at home or business should be secure behind adequate firewalls, encrypted and password protected. Offsite storage must be with a reputable firm safeguarding your data. The cost of storing data is cheaper than ever so there is no reason not to keep all required documentation and store these records safely.
Below is a handy guide for determining how long you need to keep records. I have added a few notes after some items to clarify certain requirements. It would be a good idea to bookmark this page for future reference. I list personal requirements separately from business requirements. To simplify your search I have listed items by 1 year, 3 years, 6 years, forever, and special circumstances.
It should be noted state requirements can differ from federal requirements. I follow the records retention list with special rules affecting certain states. People filing a tax return, conducting business or own property in these states will need to consider additional records retention issues.