• Finance, Education

Do you really have to save all your tax forms?

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As a tax professional, and financial journalist, I am often asked by clients, readers, and cocktail party guests “How long should I keep copies of my tax returns?”

The short answer is: forever. It's good practice to keep the paper copy of your Form 1040 or 1040A, with all supporting Schedules and Forms (Schedules A, B, C, D, E, F, H and Forms 2106, 8606, 8863, etc), and copies of all your Form W-2s.

This provides a permanent record of your financial history. You never know when the information on a prior year’s tax return will come in handy for a variety of tax or financial related reasons, or just to satisfy personal curiosity.

For example, a long-time client emailed me to ask if I had copies of his wife’s 1998 and 1999 Form W-2s. He had not saved them, and needed the forms for an issue with his wife’s employer, who had lost their payroll records for past years in a flood and did not have back-up copies stored elsewhere.

The time period for keeping all other records ties in to the fact that the IRS has three years from the filing date of a tax return to audit and revise that return. Some states can go back four years.

I recommend keeping all back-up documentation that supports an item reported or deducted on your tax return for four full years.

This includes:

  • all applicable bank statements
  • cancelled checks as well
  • 1099s
  • 1098s
  • appropriate receipts and bills
  • back-up copies of your tax returns

Hold on to your individual pay stubs for the year until you have received the Form W-2. Reconcile the year-to-date cumulative totals on the last pay stub for the year to the amounts reported on the W-2. If they match you can throw out all but the last pay stub. Keep the final pay stub for the year, with the year-end cumulative numbers, with your tax return back-up for that year.

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Certain documentation requires longer holding periods. For investments in stock, bonds and mutual funds keep all confirms and other appropriate back-up (notices of splits and records of any dividend reinvestments) for as long as you hold the investment plus four additional years. Keep the confirmation slip or other documentation for the sale or disposition of the investment for four years after the sale or disposition.

Similarly, if you own real estate (personal residence, vacation property, and rental or investment property) keep all Closing or Settlement Statements for the purchase and refinancing of the property, and documentation of any capital improvements, for as long as you own the property plus four additional years. Keep the Closing or Settlement Statement or other documentation for the sale or disposition of the property for four years after the sale or disposition.

If you have invested in a limited partnership or “sub-chapter S” corporation, or are a partner in a business organized as a partnership, a “sub-chapter S” corporation or an LLC or LLP, keep the annual Form K-1 you receive from the investment or business for as long as you own an interest in the entity plus four additional years, and keep any paperwork related to the sale or disposition of your interest for four years after the sale or disposition.

Receipts and bills for personal expenses that are not related to any items reported or deducted on your tax return can usually be tossed after one year. As a general rule, you can throw out all such bills for calendar year 2014 in January of 2016, although there are some bills and receipts you should keep longer for non-tax reasons.

If you have any questions about saving tax bills and records you should ask your tax professional.

Northeast PA resident Robert D Flach has been preparing 1040s since 1972, and has been writing the popular tax blog THE WANDERING TAX PRO since the summer of 2001. He has also created and writes the websites THE TAX PROFESSIONAL and FIND A TAX PROFESSIONAL. He is available to write articles and columns on federal tax planning and preparation for print and online newsletters and magazines and websites and portals.