The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has some hard and fast rules regarding how long taxpayers should keep their tax records.

As the IRS puts it, the duration of your tax record keeping depends on the “action, expense, or event” impacting those records. Those actions, and those timelines, are important, as they impact the statute of limitations on any amendments to your tax return, or the federal government’s ability to demand additional tax payments from you.

The period of limitations is the time in which you can amend your tax return to claim a credit or refund, or the time in which the IRS can assess additional tax.

The following information is directly from IRS.gov, which states how long to keep income tax returns. The years specified begin after the return was filed. Any returns filed before the due date are considered to have been filed on the due date.

  1. Keep records for three years if situations (4), (5), and (6) below do not apply to you.
  2. Keep 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, if you file a claim for credit or refund after you file your return.
  3. Keep records for seven years if you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction.
  4. Keep records for six years if you do not report income that you should report, and it is more than 25% of the gross income shown on your return.
  5. Keep records indefinitely if you do not file a return.
  6. Keep records indefinitely if you file a fraudulent return.
  7. Keep employment tax records for at least four years after the date that the tax becomes due or is paid, whichever is later. 

Important Questions

The following questions should be applied to each record as you decide whether to keep a document or throw it away:

Are the records connected to property?

The IRS states holding onto records that relate to property until the period of limitations expires for the year in which you dispose of the property in a taxable disposition. The reason to store these records is to determine any depreciation, amortization, or depletion deduction, and to determine the gain or loss when you sell or dispose of the property.

Generally, if you received property in a nontaxable exchange, your basis in that property is the same as the basis of the property you gave up, increased by any money you paid. You must keep the records on the old property, as well as on the new property, until the period of limitations expires for the year in which you dispose of the new property in a taxable disposition.

What should I do with my records for nontax purposes?

The IRS states that when tax records are no longer required for specific tax purposes, do not dispose of them until there is a certainty they won't be needed for other reasons. Many times, other bodies will require tax documents for their own purposes. Insurance companies or creditors often ask you to keep files longer than the IRS requires. When in doubt, play it safe and keep the records.

Advisor Insight

If the IRS finds a substantial error in your current return, they could go back six years into your tax history to investigate. However, you might want to keep your returns for even longer than that. Your tax records summarize your financial life. They contain important cost basis data that may be difficult to find several years from now. This is less of a problem today because account custodians are now required to report and transfer cost data with assets. But why rely on the custodian when you have the info? Your return will also validate your income and whether you made retirement plan contributions. Best practices suggest you should hold on to your tax returns and supporting documents for as long as possible. In this era of electronic filing and record keeping, it’s an easy thing to do.

Neal Frankle, CFP®
Wealth Resources Group Westlake Village, CA