Know How and Where to Store Your Tax Documents

 Susannah Snider

Storing your tax documents requires a careful balancing act. You want to keep important financial forms for as long as you need them, but you don't want to store them in such a haphazard way that identity thieves can find them or you can't locate what you need when necessary.

"If there's any chance you were to get audited, you'd want to produce [those documents] in a quick manner and organized manner," says Seth Babb, director of consumer products at TaxSlayer.

Here's what to know about keeping and storing your tax return, supporting documents and other essential financial tax forms.

What to keep. After filing taxes, you want to hold on to your tax return and supporting documentation for at least three years. In a few specific situations, some documents will need to be kept even longer.

Three years. You typically want to keep your tax returns and related financial documents for at least three years. For an individual filer, those supporting documents back up any income, deduction or tax credit claimed on your return and may include W-2 income forms, charitable donation receipts and 1099 forms.

Six years. Tax filers will need to store some documents even longer, experts say. For example, if you underreport your income, and the unreported amount is more than 25 percent of the gross income on your return, the Internal Revenue Service recommends keeping those background records for six years.

Seven years. You want to keep records for seven years if you claim a loss on worthless securities or bad debt deduction, according to the IRS.

Even longer, and maybe forever. Some financial documents related to your taxes should be kept for years, and maybe even forever. For example, "Any records related to capital assets, keep forever," says Jerry Gaddis, enrolled agent, founder and CEO of Tropical Tax Solutions in the Florida Keys. Those might include documents related to the purchase or sale of a home or a stock, for instance. You'll also want to hang on to records of major, value-adding home improvements, he says. The IRS also recommends holding on to records forever if you do not file a tax return or if you file a fraudulent tax return.

Why you should keep tax documents. There are a number of reasons why you should hold on to important tax documents, experts say. For one, you'll want those documents in case you are audited and asked to produce those papers. You may also be asked to produce old tax returns as proof of income if you apply for a mortgage or another major loan. If you have a child headed to college, keeping tax records, including your tax return and W-2 income records, may be useful when filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly called the FAFSA, which asks for income information from two years prior to your child's enrollment.

Keeping records is also a good resource if you want to continue to learn from previous year's tax mistakes. "You can track your progress from year to year," Babb says. Having a previous year's tax records on hand might jog your memory if you need to remember how you handled a particularly sticky tax issue in the past. It also helps to have any documents on hand if you decide to amend a tax return, which generally is allowable for up to three years after the original file date or two years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later.

How to protect yourself. While it's important to keep essential tax records on hand, don't store them in a way that makes them vulnerable to hackers or easy to lose. The information on your tax return, including your name, address and Social Security number, is incredibly valuable to fraudsters, who can use it to open up credit accounts in your name or even file a fraudulent tax return in order to collect your refund.

One common financial scam happens when fraudsters tap into your computer system, sometimes by sending you an infected email attachment or online link, then holding your files hostage until you pay up, says Paige Hanson, chief of identity education at LifeLock, a Symantec company. To avoid losing them to scammers, make sure to back up your documents periodically, either in paper, on an external hard drive or in another safe, accessible location.

If you're storing your documents on the cloud, through a system such as Google Drive or Dropbox, for example, make sure that you're doing your due diligence with security. Use a password manager to ensure that your passwords are appropriately complex and unique from site to site, Hanson says. Enable two-factor authentication, so that identity thieves have an extra hurdle to clear before accessing your accounts. Paper documents work fine, but it's wise to back them up online in case a fire, flood or other disaster destroys them. Once you've decided to toss old tax documents, make sure to shred them using a cross-shredder, Hanson says, so someone can't dig through your trash and find your most personal financial information.

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