Was that a question that you’ve ever asked?
I know that I get that question asked of me quite frequently. Whether from a new client, or attending a social gathering, or even at a baseball game (I was actually asked this at a Mets baseball game at Citifield by a fellow fan during casual conversation).
Now that we are in full swing of this year’s tax season, you are probably wondering what old records can be discarded. If you are like most taxpayers, you have records from years ago that you are afraid to throw away. It would be helpful to understand why the records must be kept in the first place.
Generally, we keep tax records for two basic reasons: (1) in case the IRS or a state agency decides to question the information reported on our tax returns, and (2) to keep track of the tax basis of our capital assets so that the tax liability can be minimized when we dispose of them.
With certain exceptions, the statute for assessing additional taxes is three years from the return due date or the date the return was filed, whichever is later (IRC section 6501(a) in case you feel ‘geeky’). However, the statute of limitations for many states is one year longer than the federal law (Note: in NYS the rule is: Three years after the date the tax return was filed). In addition to lengthened state statutes clouding the recordkeeping issue, the federal three-year assessment period is extended to six years if a taxpayer omits from gross income an amount that is more than 25 percent of the income reported on a tax return (NYS is six years after the tax return was filed). And, of course, the statutes don’t begin running until a return has been filed. There is no limit where a taxpayer files a false or fraudulent return to evade taxes (same for NYS).
If an exception does not apply to you, for federal purposes, most of your tax records that are more than three years old can probably be discarded; add a year or so to that if you live in a state with a longer statute.
Examples – Susan filed her 2013 tax return before the due date of April 15, 2014. She will be able to dispose of most of the 2013 records safely after April 17, 2017 (April 15, 2017 falls on a Saturday). On the other hand, Bob files his 2013 tax return on June 2, 2014. He needs to keep his records at least until June 2, 2017. In both cases, the taxpayers may opt to keep their records a year or two longer if their states have a statute of limitations longer than three years. Note: If a due date falls on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday, the due date becomes the next business day.
The Big Problem!
The problem with the carte blanche discarding of records for a particular year because the statute of limitations has expired is that many taxpayers combine their normal tax records and the records needed to substantiate the basis of capital assets. These need to be separated and the basis records should not be discarded before the statute expires for the year in which the asset is disposed. Thus, it makes more sense to keep those records separated by asset. The following are examples of records that fall into that category:
• Stock Acquisition Data – If you own stock in a corporation, keep the purchase records for at least four years after the year the stock is sold. This data will be needed to prove the amount of profit (or loss) you had on the sale.
• Stock and Mutual Fund Statements (If you reinvest dividends) – Many taxpayers use the dividends they receive from stocks or mutual funds to buy more shares of the same stock or fund. The reinvested amounts add to the basis in the property and reduce gain when it is finally sold. Keep statements at least four years after the final sale.
• Tangible Property Purchase and Improvement Records – Keep records of home, investment, rental property, or business property acquisitions AND related capital improvements for at least four years after the underlying property is sold.
For example, when the large $250,000 and $500,000 home exclusion was passed into law several years back, homeowners became lax in maintaining home improvement records, thinking the large exclusions would cover any potential appreciation in the home’s value. Now that exclusion may not always be enough to cover sale gains, particularly in markets where property values have steadily risen, so records of home improvements are vital. Records can be important, so please use caution when discarding them.
What About The Tax Returns Themselves?
While disposing of the back-up documents used to prepare the returns can usually be done after the statutory period has expired, you may want to consider keeping a copy of your tax returns (the 1040 and attached schedules/statements plus your state return) indefinitely. If you just don’t have room to keep a copy of the paper returns, digitizing them is an option.
It’s better to make sure, before discarding something that might be needed down the road.
Bruce – Your Host at The Tax Nook
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