Dear Liz: I’ve seen some writers suggest that people can destroy financial and tax information after three years. Let me tell you my story. Before my sister died, I had to take care of her finances. She had little money left but she had to go into an assisted-living facility. I had to show proof of five years’ earnings and financial statements. So please tell people not to shred or discard information after three years.
Answer: It sounds as if you were getting your sister qualified for Medicaid, the government program that covers health and custodial care for the indigent. Medicaid now has a five-year “look back” period that penalizes transfers of money or assets when people apply for coverage. The look-back period is designed to discourage people from artificially impoverishing themselves by transferring assets to others so that they can qualify for Medicaid to cover nursing home bills.
You’re right that destroying financial documents after three years may be a bit precipitous. The IRS typically has three years from the due date of the return, or the date it was filed, whichever is later, to conduct most audits. But the deadline can be extended an additional three years if the IRS believes you significantly underreported income. And certain documents need to be retained longer. That’s why many tax experts recommend hanging on to supporting documents for your tax return for at least seven years, and keeping the tax returns themselves indefinitely. You also might consider scanning important financial documentation into your computer and keeping back-ups offsite.
The good news is that many of the statements you’re likely to need can be reordered from the financial institution that originally issued them. There may be fees involved, but many banks, brokerages and credit card firms easily can provide you with statements dating back six years, if not longer.