Here are three important concepts to keep in mind when deciding what to keep and what to toss, from my MSN column, “Purge your financial paperwork“:
- Think “seven to life.” It’s not a prison sentence, just the range of time you should keep your most vital paperwork. Most tax-related documents should be kept for seven years, or — if the document deals with a potentially taxable investment or asset — for as long as you own the asset, plus seven years. There are only a few documents you need to keep for life, and these typically reflect milestones: birth, death and marriage certificates, adoption papers and divorce decrees, for example.
- Most documents you’re likely to need can be re-created. You can order certified copies of those certificates, for example; and financial institutions are required to keep copies of your bank, brokerage and credit card statements for seven years. You may face hassles, expense and delays in getting those re-creations, which is why you want to have your own document storage system. But you shouldn’t panic if you lose or shred something that turns out to be important, and you should never — ever – risk your life trying to retrieve mere paperwork in a disaster.
- Electronic is OK. The IRS has long accepted electronic records in place of paper. If you want to scan or download your documents into your computer instead of keeping them in physical form, that’s probably fine — just check with your accountant first to make sure he or she has no objections.
For more on cleaning up paper clutter, read: