How long should you keep your tax records?

It’s now summertime, officially, and you still haven’t finished your spring cleaning. So, what tax records do you need to keep while catching up on your spring cleaning this summer? You need to give some thought before throwing out those old tax records.

What tax records should I keep?

This question requires an analysis of why you would need any of your tax records, other than shoe box filler of course. If you’re “lucky” enough to have your tax returns audited by the government, the burden of proof will be yours to substantiate the entries, deductions, and statements on your tax return. This is the primary reason for keeping your tax records. Therefore, the records you need to hang on to are the documents that you used, or should have used, to prepare your tax returns. This often includes, among other things, receipts, cancelled checks, bank statements, income statements, repair statements, mileage logs, withdrawal statements, and property transfer closing paperwork.

How long do I need to keep my tax records?

This is really a question of, how long is the government allowed to pester you for verification of the representations on your tax returns. If you file a federal income tax return, you will you need to keep your tax records for three years from the date the tax return was due, or the date the tax return was filed, whichever is later. However some states, such as California for example, may audit your records longer than the IRS can; so you will need to check your state’s rules to verify how much longer you need to keep your records depending on which state tax return(s) you file.

There are exceptions to the IRS’ three year rule that require you to keep records for longer than the three year period. These exceptions include when you don’t file a tax return, when you understate your income, or when you file a fraudulent return. Ironically, if you fall into one of these categories, you likely don’t have accurate records to begin with; so the government truly has you on the hook for a serious tax problem longer than taxpayers who keep accurate records. It’s also generally a good idea to keep tax returns and supporting documentation for the tax years when you acquire or transfer property that may be used to calculate gains or losses on a future tax return. And of course, there may be non-tax reasons to keep documentation accessible longer than the government’s need for evidence.

These days, converting files to an electronic format is pretty accessible to anyone with a scanner or near a print shop. So, if you’re not sure whether to dispose the document after the appropriate time has elapsed, at least scan and save the documentation to give you peace of mind. Lastly, when disposing of old tax records and supporting documents, be smart, securely shred the documents … your trash may be a thief’s treasure.

IRS to Cancel Tax Relief Programs?

Is the IRS really warning that emergency tax relief will no longer be allowed? I doubt it. Last week, the IRS issued a warning to taxpayers to safeguard and anticipate information needed for various tax issues in the event of an emergency during this year’s hurricane season. Typically, the IRS offers tax relief to victims and affected areas of natural disasters and other crises, such as the Oklahoma tornados and the Boston marathon bombing.

While the IRS has many many many faults, some of which are just finally being made public, I don’t think even the IRS would disallow emergency tax relief in the event of a hurricane disaster, and then point to their May 29, 2013, news release as warning taxpayers that they should have been more prepared during hurricane season. The warning may be filed under “preventative education”.

The preventative education provided by the IRS are reminders of some of the safeguards that we all know we need to take to keep our financial affairs in order, but will also allow you to maintain tax compliant in the event of an emergency.  This includes:

  • Creating an electronic backup of your records that can be accessed via the internet or other electronic format. Additionally, non-internet backup records should be stored in a secondary location;
  • A photo and video record can help prove the market value of real property and tangible items for insurance and casualty loss claims. Photos should be stored with a friend or family member who lives outside the area. However, these days photos and videos can also be easily uploaded and downloaded online.
  • Employers who use payroll service providers should ask the provider if it has a fiduciary bond in place. The bond could protect the employer in the event of default by the payroll service provider.

These precautions may help you be prepared tax-wise in the event of an emergency. While emergency tax relief will likely be offered as emergencies arise, a consultation with a tax relief attorney will ensure that your tax rights are protected even when there isn’t a natural disaster.