t's the start of the new year and your file cabinet--or safe, or shoe box--is bursting with
tax records, receipts, warranties, and old credit union statements. You declare that it's time
to clean things up but you don't know where to begin. What should you save? And for how
Although the tax man is expected to take a kinder, gentler approach this year, it's important to follow Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines for record keeping, many of which you can get from your accountant. The IRS also spells out requirements in several publications that you can find on-line.
According to Bill House of the Madison, Wis., certified public accounting firm Ragsdale, Spitz, & Reuschlein, you're better off saving things for too long than not long enough. You can do this and still cut down on the clutter if you know what to save. So pull out those file folders and labels, and we'll help you answer a few questions and sort through the mess.
How long should I keep tax records, including
The statute of limitations on personal tax audits is three years, so most accountants advise you to keep supporting documents, including receipts, credit union statements, and check or share draft registers, for approximately four years. (Note: There's no statute of limitations when you file a false or fraudulent return or when you file no return.) Although the IRS says you can throw old tax returns away after three years, Nora Landero, an accountant with the San Mateo, Calif., branch of H&R; Block, recommends keeping them indefinitely. If you've thrown old tax returns away and would like to obtain copies, you can request them by calling the IRS at (800)829-1040. You can obtain more information about tax record keeping by ordering IRS publications 552--Record keeping for individuals, or 583--Starting a business and keeping records. Find additional information on-line at www.irs.ustreas.gov/forms_pubs/index.html or handrblock.com/tax/tip/rcrd.html.
Do I need to keep insurance papers, and if so, should they
be kept in the same place as my will?
Ideally, you should keep current life insurance documents in a safe deposit box with your original will. (Your will won't contain information about these policies because payment to beneficiaries comes directly from the insurance companies; your attorney handles your will through probate, a judicial certification of the validity of your will.) You also can opt to keep these documents in a fire-retardant safe at home. According to Paul Schmidt, a partner with the law firm Boardman, Suhr, Curry, & Field, Madison, Wis., your attorney can provide you with a "List of Last Instructions," which serves as a detailed list of wills, insurance policies, and the locations of safe deposit boxes for your survivors.
You also can achieve this by creating a file titled "Where to find...", which should contain a list of where survivors should look for wills, insurance policies, records from your financial institution, and so on. Give a copy of your will to the executor of your estate; you also can file a copy with the local probate court for a nominal fee ($10 in most municipalities).
What happens if no one can find my will or insurance
policies after I die?
According to Schmidt, it's important to keep your original will where survivors can locate it, or the will may be considered revoked or invalid, in which case your attorney must follow the Rules of Intestacy, meaning the state laws determine who gets your assets. Similarly, if you have no filed record of your life insurance policies, survivors will have no way of collecting on your policy. Officials at USAA Insurance, San Antonio, say they often receive calls from survivors of beneficiaries who are inquiring about possible coverage after finding receipts or correspondence from insurance companies in the deceased's files.
Where should I keep my living will?
You can handle health care decisions in one of two ways: One, give a copy of a living will--a document that states your medical wishes--to your doctor or primary care provider, which he or she will keep with your permanent medical record. Or, two, confer a durable health care power of attorney on a trusted family member or friend to ensure that your wishes are met. This will give him or her the authority to make medical decisions in the event of a life-threatening illness or accident.
Are there any other records I should save
Many records should be saved indefinitely. Marriage certificates, birth certificates, valid passports, property records, and stock certificates are among them. Place these in a safe deposit box or fire-retardant container, such as a safe. Because the need for international travel can come up suddenly, it's a good idea to keep passports at home. Buying a home safe may be a wise investment. These also are valuable for storing jewelry, family heirlooms, automobile titles, a household inventory of personal property (with supporting photos or videotape), and legal files.
Is it necessary to save legal documents on cases that have
You generally can discard legal documents after cases have been settled, although attorneys recommend keeping such documents for up to six years following the date of the last payment. Statutes of limitation vary from case to case, so get the advice of an attorney before disposing of any legal documents. And in the case of divorce, keeping a copy of your divorce judgment indefinitely is in your best interest. Lenders may require it when making credit decisions.
What records can I throw away? And
An important part of record keeping is knowing what to throw away and when to get rid of it. Remember, the more clutter you have the harder it is to get to the papers you really need. Throw away anything outdated, such as expired insurance policies, expired licenses, and receipts for items having expired warranties. You also can discard papers that are stored permanently somewhere else, such as medical records, although you should keep immunization cards. Throw away old credit card statements, and only keep bills until they're paid--unless you're self-employed and need them for tax purposes. You can throw away paycheck stubs at the end of the year, after you have verified the totals with a copy of your W-2 for tax purposes.
How can I junk that junk mail?!
Keeping junk mail is one of the quickest ways to create clutter, and ridding yourself of it is one of the biggest steps you can take to living a clutter-free life. Deal with and discard catalogs, sweepstakes entries, and special offers before they have a chance to pile up.
It's also wise to go through your files occasionally and throw away expired and outdated documents. Plan to do this once a quarter and you soon should be living a clutter-free life!
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