Tax Records: Which Ones to Toss and When
Now is a great time to clean out that growing mountain of financial papers and tax documents that clutter your home and office. Here’s what you need to keep and what you can throw out.
Let’s start with your “safety zone,” the IRS statute of limitations. This limits the number of years during which the IRS can audit your tax returns. Once that period has expired, the IRS cannot assess any additional tax for those years.
The concept behind it is that after a period of years, records are lost or misplaced, and memory isn’t as accurate as we would hope. There’s a need for finality. Once the statute of limitations has expired, the IRS can’t go after you for additional taxes, but you can’t go after the IRS for additional refunds either.
The Three-Year Rule
For assessment of additional taxes, the statute of limitations generally runs three years from the date you file your return. If you’re looking for an additional refund, the limitations period is generally the later of three years from the date you filed the original return or two years from the date you paid the tax. There are some exceptions:
- If you don’t report all your income, and the unreported amount is more than 25 percent of the gross income actually shown on your return, the limitation period is six years.
- If you’ve claimed a loss from a worthless security or a nonbusiness bad debt, the limitation period is extended to seven years.
- If you file a fraudulent return or don’t file at all, the limitations period doesn’t apply. In fact, the IRS can go after you at any time.
- If you’re deciding what records you need or want to keep, you have to ask what your chances are of an audit. A tax audit is an IRS verification of items of income and deductions on your return. So you should keep records to support those items until the statute of limitations runs out.
Assuming that you’ve filed on time and paid what you should, you only have to keep your tax records for three years, but some records have to be kept longer than that, particularly those that affect more than one year. A typical example would be documents that show what you paid for your home.
Remember, the three-year rule relates to the information on your tax return. But, some of that information may relate to transactions more than three years old.
Here’s a checklist of the documents you should hold on to:
- Capital gains and losses.Your gain is reduced by your basis – your cost (including all commissions) plus any reinvested dividends and capital gain distributions. But you may have bought that stock many years ago, and you’ve been reinvesting those dividends and capital gains over the last decade. And don’t forget those stock splits.
You don’t ever want to throw these records away until after you sell the securities. And then if you’re audited, you’ll have to prove those numbers. Therefore, you’ll need to keep those records for at least three years after you file the return reporting their sales.
- Expenses on your home.Cost records for your house and any improvements should be kept until the home is sold. It is good practice, even though most homeowners won’t face any tax problems. That’s because profit of less than $250,000 on your primary residence ($500,000 on a joint return) isn’t subject to capital gains tax.
If the profit is more than $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers), or if you don’t qualify for the full gain exclusion, then you’re going to need those records for another three years after that return is filed. Most homeowners probably won’t face that issue, but of course, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Business records.Business records can become a nightmare. Non-residential real property is depreciated over a period of 39 years. You could be audited on the depreciation up to three years after you file the return for the final year. That’s a long time to hold onto receipts, but you may need to validate those numbers.
- Employment, bank and brokerage statements.Keep all your W-2s, 1099s, brokerage and bank statements to prove income until three years after you file. And don’t even think about dumping checks, receipts, mileage logs, tax diaries and other documentation that substantiate your expenses.
- Tax returns.Keep copies of your tax returns as well. You can’t rely on the IRS to actually have a copy of your old returns. As a general rule, you should keep tax records for six years. The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep those records, until they can no longer affect your tax return, plus the three-year statute of limitations.
- Social Security records.You will need to keep some records for Social Security purposes, so check with the Social Security Administration each year to confirm that your payments have been properly credited. If they’re wrong, you’ll need your W-2 or copies of your Schedule C (if self-employed) to prove the right amount. Don’t dispose of those records until after you’ve validated those contributions.
Keep in mind that there may be nontax reasons for you to keep your records longer than the IRS requires. Check with lenders and insurance companies before discarding important documents.
Contact our office by phone or email if you have any questions about which tax and financial records you need to keep this year.