I REGULARLY REMIND clients to hold onto their tax records in case their returns are questioned by the Internal Revenue Service. Understandably, clients ask just how long do they need to save those old records that clutter their closets and desk drawers?
Unfortunately, there’s no flat cutoff. The IRS says the answer depends on what information the records contain and the kind of transaction involved.
It supplements this vague guideline with a cryptic warning: Keep supporting records for “as long as they are important for the federal tax law.” Translated from government argot, this means: Save credit card and other receipts; bills; invoices; mileage logs; canceled, imaged or substitute checks; and whatever else might help support income, deductions, exemptions, credits, exclusions, deferrals and other items on your return.
You should hang onto these documents at least until the expiration of the statute of limitations for an audit or for you to file a refund claim, should you find an error after filing. The statute of limitations is the limited period of time after which the tax gatherers are no longer able to come knocking and after which you can’t recover an overpayment.
In most cases, the IRS has only three years from the filing deadline to take a crack at your return. For example, the deadline is April 2019 for the government to start an examination of a return for tax year 2015 that was filed in April 2016. As soon as three years elapse, you could toss out or—if apprehensive—shred much of the paperwork that you’ve accumulated.
But wait! Predictably enough, nothing is straightforward when it comes to taxes. There are two exceptions to the three-year test, though they don’t apply to most people.
The first one authorizes the IRS to double the audit deadline from three to six years if the amount of income you fail to report is more than 25% of the amount you show on your return. To illustrate, the six-year deadline expires in April 2019 for returns for tax year 2012 that were submitted in April 2013.
The second exception specifies that there’s no time limit should you fail to file a return or you file one that’s deemed false or fraudulent. The audit, admonishes the IRS, can begin “at any time.”
Those exceptions aside, there are other situations when it’s advisable to keep tax-related documents for much longer than three years. For example, you need to retain records of home improvements, as well as payments for stocks, mutual funds, real estate and other investments. These records are vital, not only because you may need them for an IRS audit, but because you need them to figure your profits or losses on sales that may not take place until many years later.
You also should retain indefinitely copies of 1040 forms filed electronically or mailed in. Copies are always helpful as guides for future returns or amending previously filed returns, and may prove helpful if the IRS claims you failed to file them.
Julian Block writes and practices law in Larchmont, New York, and was formerly with the IRS as a special agent (criminal investigator). His previous articles include The Dreaded Letter, An Ode to Owing and Right on Schedule. This article is excerpted from Julian Block’s Year-Round Tax Savings, available at JulianBlockTaxExpert.com. Follow Julian on Twitter @BlockJulian.