The other day, I sat on the couch in my home office and read a book.
A few weeks ago, I couldn’t find a place to sit because every inch was covered in piles of papers, computer accessories and books. Now I look around my office and I feel relaxed.
With the clutter cleared, I’m using the space better. I’m more productive because I don’t have to dig for books I want to read or papers I need to review.
Since Jan. 8, I’ve encouraged you to follow along on the three-week #NoDebtNoMess Color of Money Challenge. The mission is to declutter your dwelling and your debt. How much more stress-free might you be if you got rid of the stuff crowding your closets or the credit card debt that keeps you up at night?
In a recent column, as part of this decluttering effort, certified financial planners and accounting experts offered their take on which documents you could get rid of and which you should keep. The advice led to some follow-up questions from readers.
The experts I interviewed gave these two recommendations:
● Keep tax records for seven years after a return is filed.
● Keep your tax returns indefinitely.
One reader asked: “What’s the difference between tax records and a tax return?”
Your tax records are the documents and receipts that support the information you put on your tax return. For example, my husband and I have saved for our children’s college education in 529 plans. Earnings in a 529 are not subject to federal tax or, generally, state tax if the beneficiary uses the funds for qualified educational expenses. It’s vital that we keep good records showing we spent the money on qualified school expenses.
“The records are the supporting documentation to prove that the numbers on your return are true,” said Kelley Long, a Chicago-based certified financial planner and certified public accountant. “For example, your W-2, receipts documenting charitable gifts or property tax files showing the amount of taxes you paid that year. You don’t file those things with the IRS. But if they request them, you have to produce them or you may end up owing additional tax and/or penalties.”
Generally, the Internal Revenue Service says you should keep tax records for three years from the date you filed your original return, or two years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. But the agency has a longer look-back period of six years if you underreported your gross income by more than 25 percent. Keep records for seven years if you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction, according to the IRS. And, if you’ve submitted a return that the IRS deems fraudulent, there is no time limit for how long the agency can come after you.
So given the exceptions, the experts advise that you should err on the side of caution and hold on to supporting documentation for at least seven years.
Another reader asked: “Are scanned copies of receipts acceptable to the IRS and insurance companies?”
“The IRS absolutely accepts scanned receipts,” Long said. “As for insurance companies, my logic tells me that they would, but I would ask your specific insurance company just to be sure. A simple email to their general info email box should suffice so you have their response in writing.”
Someone wondered how long to keep a will once the estate is closed.
“If the estate of the deceased was probated, then the original will be kept on file forever with the courthouse where the estate was settled,” Long said, adding that an estate is settled after all assets are distributed, an estate tax return is filed and the estate is closed.
Even so, she says, “it’s a good idea to keep a copy of the will for up to three years after the estate is settled in case the IRS questions anything on the tax return.”
As an aside, I also recommend you keep or scan funeral programs. The obituary information contains a lot of family history, so I collect programs. (I’ve had to write obituaries for my grandfather, my grandmother Big Mama, two brothers, three in-laws and my mother.) Often people aren’t clear on the facts and may not like your probing for accuracy.
If you’re still unsure about what to keep, go to bankrate.com and search for “How long to keep financial records.” You’ll find a useful timeline that will help you get your papers off your couch.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.