Ask Stacy: How Long Do I Keep My Tax Returns?

Keeping your tax returns and all the paperwork supporting them isn't as much of a pain as it used to be. Here's why.

Ask Stacy: How Long Do I Keep My Tax Returns? Photo by Nomad_Soul / Shutterstock.com

Welcome to “Ask Stacy,” a short video feature answering money questions submitted by readers and viewers. You can learn how to send in a question of your own below.

If you’re not typically a video watcher, give it a try. These videos are short and painless, and you’ll learn something valuable. But if you can’t deal with video, no problem: Just scroll down this page for the full transcript of the video, as well as some reader resources.

Today’s question is about tax returns; specifically, how long you need to keep returns and assorted supporting paperwork.

This question is much less important than it used to be. Check out the following video to understand why.

For more information on this topic, check out “7 Foolproof Organizing Tricks to Tame Your Paperwork” and “13 Smart Ways to Spring Clean Your Finances.” You can also go to the search at the top of this page, put in the word “paperwork” and find plenty of information on just about everything relating to this topic.

Got a question of your own? Scroll down past the transcript.

Don’t want to watch? Here’s what I said in the video

Hello, everyone, and welcome to your money Q&A question of the day. I’m your host, Stacy Johnson, and this answer is brought to you by MoneyTalksNews.com, serving up the best in personal finance news and advice since 1991.

Our question of the day comes from Robert:

“How long do I keep hard copies of my state and federal tax returns?”

This used to be something I paid a great deal of attention to. But I pay less attention to it now. Why? Because I don’t keep hard copies of my returns or other documents. I scan everything and safely store it in the cloud. So, while I used to have boxes of files, today I have none. I scan pretty much everything, store it digitally and keep it forever.

And why not? Digital copies don’t take up any physical space. Storing them in the cloud is free, or practically free. My digital copies are easy to find, and when I want to find something within them, they’re easily searchable.

Obviously, there are some papers that need to remain in paper form. For example, you need to hang on to car titles, things with raised seals and papers requiring original signatures, like a will. But the vast majority of the paper you’re sitting on, including your tax returns, can be digitized.

The IRS is fine with digital documents. After all, if you’re filing returns electronically — and most taxpayers do these days — the IRS is not getting paper copies of your return. Why should you keep paper copies?

If you’re not digitizing tax returns, start doing so. Just make sure you store digital files in a safe place that only you can access.

Now, let’s address another question: How long do you have to keep your tax returns, digital or otherwise?

You need to keep a copy of your tax returns forever, in case you need to prove you filed.

As far as the supporting documents for tax returns, typically you want to keep them for at least three years after the tax return is filed. That’s because the IRS typically can go back three years to audit returns. So, that’s how long you keep documents supporting that tax return.

While it may seem that three years is the limit, there are documents you’ll have much longer. For example, I’ve owned my house for 17 years. When I sell it, if I have a big profit, I might have to pay taxes on part of the gain. To reduce my taxes, I’ll need to show the money I’ve put into the house. So, I’ve kept all the receipts for improvements, some dating back to the first year I owned the house. I’ll have to continue holding that paperwork for another three years after I sell the house and report the sale on my tax return.

So, there are documents you’ll keep longer than three years. There are also exceptions to the three-year rule. If you underreport your income by 25 percent, the statute of limitations is doubled to six years. If you filed a fraudulent return, the IRS can go back to the days the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. But if you’re a typical taxpayer reporting your income and doing things the right way, three years is your answer. If you aren’t doing things the right way, it could be longer.

Whatever your situation, though, digitize your documents and store them cheaply and safely in the cloud. Then, you won’t have to worry about them burning up, getting lost, getting eaten by mice or anything else. And you won’t have to worry about how long to keep stuff.

Let’s close with our quote of the day. This comes from legendary journalist H.L. Mencken.

“When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

Have a super-profitable day, and meet me right here next time!

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The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’m a CPA, and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate.

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Stacy Johnson
Stacy Johnson @moneytalksnews
I'm the founder of Money Talks News and have spent the last 40+ years in the personal finance trenches. I'm a CPA, author of a few books and multiple Emmy recipient. I'm ... More

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