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What do you do with all the papers?

You’re paying the bills and there isn’t any more room in the file cabinet or drawer, what do you do? Do you sit and wonder which are the important papers to keep and which ones can be thrown out?

A basic rule is to keep tax related documents for seven years. Following this you would want to keep any documentation to support your taxes for this amount of time as well.

Exceptions to the seven year rule of course would be investment or asset documentation (car and home purchases, stock or bonds that are still owned). The few documents you need to keep for life would include but may not be limited to birth, death and marriage certificates, adoption papers and divorce decrees, for example.

Now onto the clutter that accumulates each month. Let’s take each by a category starting with A – automobiles. You should keep the current registration, all repair receipts, warranties, and the user manual(s) as long as you own the vehicle. Upon the sale of the vehicle, keep the paperwork for that transaction for a few years after you transfer ownership.

Bank accounts. The receipts from the ATM machine can be tossed once you check them against your monthly statement. Canceled checks can be shreded one year after writing them unless they are proof of purchase or a tax related issue. They should then be kept until you no longer have the asset or seven years. Keep bank statements for seven years, particularly if you don’t get cancelled checks back.

Bills. If the bill is not needed to support deductions, you generally can toss these six months to a year. If you discontinue a service, though, consider hanging on to your final statement that shows your account paid in full for at least a year.

Credit card and other credit accounts. These can see the shredder after a year if you don’t need them for tax purposes. Credit card receipts are not needed after you compare them to your monthly statement (unless, again, they’re tax-related or show the purchase of a valuable item). If you get paper receipts for other loan payments, keep them until the loan is paid in full. Keep any paperwork relating to a paid collection account indefinitely; collection agencies have been known to sell these accounts, even though they’re paid, so you’ll want proof of this debt being settled.

Employment records. Typically, you can dispose of your pay stubs after comparing them to your annual W-2 form. If your year-end pay stub shows information that is not on your W-2, consider keeping that last stub for seven years.

Home. The deed, mortgage papers, the sales contracts along with appraisals are worth having their own file as long as you own the home, if not indefinitely. For tax purposes, keep documentation of the costs of buying and selling a property, including real-estate commissions and fix-up expenses. Home improvement records are another type of paperwork you’ll want to keep, since they can help reduce the potential tax bill when you sell. Finally, home repair documentation can be handy to have if the repair doesn’t hold up and needs to be redone.

Insurance. When you receive the new policy for homeowner, renter, auto or health you can toss the old one as it is not a valid policy after the expiration date. If you have a claim, keep all the documentation for that claim until it is settled and then you may want to keep it for a year after that. Again make sure there isn’t a tax deduction involved and if there is, save for seven years.

If your life insurance policy has lapsed or expired, check to make sure it has no cash value before discarding. If you get an insurance payout, keep those records at least seven years and perhaps indefinitely; the IRS may want to know where all that money came from.

Investments. If you’ve got a taxable account, you’ll want to keep the statements for as long as you own the investments, plus seven years. This list includes statements that show purchases, reinvested dividends and stock splits. Other paperwork can generally be discarded after you check it against your monthly statements and your 1099 tax forms.

Keeping your year-end statements for your IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement accounts can help you track your account over time, but probably won’t be necessary for tax purposes. You also might want to hang on to documents that detail any transfers between account custodians, such as if you change brokerage firms or roll your 401(k) balance to another job or an IRA.

Also, if you contributed to a 403(b) account before 1987, keep your old account statements indefinitely to prove the contributions. This money doesn’t have to be withdrawn until age 75, while other retirement money generally has to come out earlier.

Taxes. The seven year rule is most applicable here for the supporting documentation. It is recommended that you hang on to the tax returns themselves indefinitely.

Wills and estate plans. With most documents, disposing of outdated versions is optional—something you can do after a given amount of time. With estate documents, such disposal is often a necessity if you want to avoid future confusion. Shred old wills, living trusts, health-care directives and powers of attorney (originals and any copies) once they’ve been replaced by entirely new versions. But keep indefinitely any estate or trust tax return that’s been filed.

Having proof of important transactions can be helpful in many ways. You have probably heard of people being informed that they have unclaimed money. To claim this money they need to show some proof, usually something to identify them and also show that they did live at a particular location. Having this documentation will speed up the return of their money.

Want to find out if you have unclaimed property? Click here and a free comprehensive search for state and federal monies will be done.

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