Q&A: How long should you keep paperwork about an estate?

Dear Liz: My mother-in-law died 11 years ago and had money everywhere. Thus, I have five drawers full of paperwork. With the exception of the IRS documents, I would love to throw everything out (shredded, of course). How long do I need the paperwork?

Answer: Two of the biggest risks to a settled estate are an IRS audit and challenges from unhappy heirs or creditors.

State laws limiting such challenges differ quite a bit, so you might want to talk to the attorney who helped you handle the estate to make sure you’re out of the woods. If there’s any doubt, you can always scan documents before you shred them so that you have an electronic record.

If it has been more than seven years since the estate and final income tax returns were filed, an audit is highly unlikely. It’s not a bad idea to hang onto tax returns indefinitely, though. Again, supporting documentation can be shredded, although you may want to scan a copy first if you’re nervous about discarding anything.

All this assumes that the estate was properly settled — that your mother-in-law’s property was inventoried, creditors paid and distributions made according to her will if there was one or state law if there wasn’t. If the proper steps weren’t taken to legally close the estate, you’ll want to talk to an attorney immediately about how to set things right.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

estate planningToday’s top story: How $250 can keep families off welfare. Also in the news:A new tool to manage your student loans, what Prince can teach you about personal finance, and how to declutter after tax season.

$250 Can Keep Families Off Welfare, Study Finds
Even a small savings can have a big impact.

White House Releases New Tool to Help You Manage Your Student Loans
Finding the best repayment options.

What Prince Can Teach You About Personal Finance
A legend in music, not so great at estate planning.

With taxes done, now it’s time to shovel papers, declutter
Fire up the shredder.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Life InsuranceToday’s top story: How to refinance your home without piles of paperwork. Also in the news: Why you should skip credit card advances, understanding your life insurance policy, and 10 ways you could be throwing money away.

Can You Refinance Your Home Without a Mountain of Paperwork?
Finding a loan that doesn’t require a million documents.

Skip Credit Card Cash Advances: Convenience Costs Too Much
Quick cash can come with a heavy price tag.

Managing Your Life Insurance Policy: Understanding Key Terms
Knowledge is power.

10 Ways That Too Many People Throw Money Away
Stop doing that!

Weekend reading: Purging paperwork, unpayable taxes and saving for college

taxesOne of the great things about being a columnist is getting access to experts who can help you with problems in your own life–under the guise of helping your readers, of course. Recently I was lucky enough to interview three smart CPAs who had great advice about purging paperwork from our lives, and have already implemented their suggestions. Paperlessness, here I come!

Another column that got a good amount of attention was one on two-year degrees that pay well. Not everyone wants or needs to go to a four-year school, and some are better off. Here are those stories plus the other columns I did for Reuters last month.

Financial records: What to keep, what to toss

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I resolve every tax season to get a better handle on my paperwork — with mixed results. This year, I turned to three certified public accountants to find out what apps, software and strategies they use to keep track of everything.
Two-year degrees can really pay off
Steven Polasck of Corpus Christi, Texas, liked math and science in high school. He considered attending a four-year college but ultimately decided to use his strengths to get a two-year degree in instrumentation from Texas State Technical College. He has not looked back. “I went to work on the Monday after graduation,” said Polasck, 27, who monitors and fixes systems at a Valero Energy Corp refinery. “The first year I made almost $80,000.”

College savings take a dive – study
Average amounts saved for college have fallen 25 percent since last year and fewer middle-income families are saving for higher education, even as parents overwhelmingly endorse its value as an investment, according to “How America Saves for College 2015,” the latest survey by education lender Sallie Mae.
What to do when you can’t pay your tax bill
Affluent clients facing a big tax bill often have one of two reactions, according to CPA and financial planner Jerry Love: They either try to avoid filing or they want to negotiate a deal. Neither is a good strategy, he said.
College watch list a ‘caution light’
Regulators recently made public a once secret watch list of 556 colleges under scrutiny for financial irregularities. But inclusion on the list doesn’t automatically mean the schools are about to fail, according to Department of Education regulators, college officials and even the reporter who triggered the release of the list with his Freedom of Information Act requests.

January tune-up: Your paperwork

iStock_000015900242LargeIs anyone else drowning in paperwork? I try to “prevent, prune and process,” but paper has a way of multiplying on its own.

Here’s my game plan for reducing paper clutter:

Prevent. I’ve signed up for the Direct Marketing Association’s opt out list to reduce junk mail and I use Catalog Choice to cut down on catalogs. Unfortunately, some retailers ignore these requests, so I keep a recycling bin handy. Unwanted mail goes straight to the bin so it can’t make its way any farther into our house.

Another way to prevent paper from proliferating is to sign up for electronic delivery. You can download statements or, in many cases, just let the financial institution store those for you. (Check to find out how long they do so; seven years should be as long as you’d need most statements.*) Every time I handle a piece of paper this week, I’ll be checking to see if there’s a way to receive it electronically instead.

One caveat: Going electronic doesn’t mean ignoring your accounts. I regularly check the balances and transactions of all our accounts. An account aggregator such as Mint can be a big help with this process. If receiving a paper statement is the only way you’ll remember to check your accounts, then use the scan-and-shred method as follows:

Prune. Most of our remaining paperwork can be scanned into my computer and then shredded. The IRS accepts electronic documents so there’s typically no reason to hang on to the paper version. The exceptions are paperwork that would be a pain to replace: birth, marriage and death certificates, military discharge papers and so on. Two tools that really help: my ScanSnap scanner and a heavy-duty shredded that can handle up to 15 sheets at a time.

Process. This tends to be my Achilles heel. I can think of so many better things to do than deal with that pile of paperwork on my desk. I’ve tried weekly process sessions but am coming around to the idea that it’s better not to let it pile up even that long.

*You’re likely to get different answers from different providers, which is why you need to ask. Banks and brokerages typically keep statements for 7 years (Schwab keeps them for 10) but may limit free online access to just a few years. Credit card companies are all over the map on this one. For instance, Capital One has access for four years (although you can order older statements) while Amex keeps them available for seven.

While cars no longer require traditional tune-ups, your finances still do. This month I’ll be reviewing some areas of your money that deserve some extra scrutiny and offering suggestions for the best moves now. Stay tuned for more posts–and to make sure you don’t miss any, you can sign up for my newsletter using the link on my home page.

A whole lot of shredding going on

Paper shred fistTax season has begun, which means it’s time to start organizing paperwork–and purging files.

When I wrote “Easy Money” in 2007, I was this close to paperless nirvana. Our bills were paid automatically, most of our statements were electronic, and I looked forward to the day when my file cabinets would be so empty they would echo.

Something happened along the way. Paper started to creep back in as we opened new credit cards and financial accounts and failed to switch to paperless delivery. My old accountant retired, and my new accountant didn’t get the memo that we preferred everything to be electronic. Add to that all the paper that flows into your life when you have a child in school, and pretty soon my file cabinets were bulging.

A few days ago, I declared war. Thanks to my beloved ScanSnap scanner, 15-sheet cross-cut shredder and the Interwebs, we’re back on the road if not to a paper-free life, at least a paper-less life.

If you’re struggling with what to keep and what to purge, here are some important things to know:

The IRS accepts electronic records, such as downloaded bank statements and scans of receipts. A tax pro can guide you further, but there’s nothing special about a statement you receive in the mail versus one you download from a financial institution’s site (other than the fact that the mailed version can be more easily intercepted by an identity thief).

Your greatest risk of audit is in the three years after you file a tax return. The IRS can extend the audit period another three years if it suspects you under-reported your income significantly. So you’ll want to hang on to documentation for your 2013 return–the one that’s due April 15, 2014–until at least 2017 and probably until 2020. To make it easier to remember, I just subtract 7 from the current year (2014 minus 7 equals 2007) and know that I can shred the documentation for returns filed that year, and before. The tax return itself I keep (in the past as a physical document, but from now on as a scan or electronic document).

Banks and brokerages must make your statements available for at least six years. Many do so for longer (Schwab gives us access for 10 years). Credit card issuers vary, but the cards we use for business purposes–and thus would need to reference in an IRS audit–provide seven or more years’ worth of access. I shut off mail delivery of all our various retirement account statements as well. They’re online when I need them. While it’s important to keep track of the tax basis of your IRAs (any non-deductible contributions you made) to reduce your future tax bills, all your withdrawals from 401(k)s and similar plans will be taxable, so there’s no reason to hang on to the quarterly or annual statements.

There’s no point in keeping owners manuals. Almost all of them are available online…and I’m embarrassed to say I found a few manuals for electronics and appliances we no longer own. The other documents I was keeping in those files, such as receipts and warranties, can be scanned and the originals shredded.

Out with the old, in with the new. Interestingly, all of our insurers insist on sending paperwork. I scan the new policies when they arrive and then shred the previous year’s, along with any and all paid claims.

Backups are essential. I’m still astonished that some people don’t back up regularly. Our computers are backed up daily to external hard drives as well as to an online service.

How about you? Are you hanging on to paper when it’s time to let go?


Paper statements may not be necessary

Dear Liz: I’m wondering how long we really need to keep bank statements, since banks now offer paperless options. My son doesn’t even open the statements anymore; he just views his account information online.

Answer: There’s nothing magical about paper bank statements. If your son doesn’t open them, he probably shouldn’t even get them. He can ask his bank to switch him to its paperless option and save some trees.

The IRS accepts electronic documents, and banks keep account records at least six years. Your highest risk for an audit is the three years after a tax return is filed, so you should be able to download statements if you need them in an audit. There might be fees involved to get these statements, however, so you’ll have to weigh the potential cost against the hassle of storing all that paper. Some people get the paper statements, scan them and shred the originals; others download the statements as they go and store them electronically.

If you don’t need bank records for tax purposes, there’s even less reason for getting paper statements. Eschewing them can reduce bank fees and will certainly save a few trees.