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Hanging files neatly organized in a filing cabinet in an office - Tax Records

Save Space & Stay Compliant: The IRS Rules on Keeping Tax Records

Every year, after the tax filing frenzy subsides, many taxpayers grapple with a lingering question: what old tax records can be safely discarded? This article delves into the nitty-gritty of recordkeeping, helping you declutter your home office while ensuring you retain crucial documents for the long haul.

Why Keep Tax Records?

Tax records serve several important purposes:

  • Audit Defense: The IRS can audit tax returns for several years. Proper documentation helps substantiate your claims and defend against potential adjustments.
  • Amending Returns: Discovered errors or overlooked deductions necessitate amending a return. Detailed records ensure a smooth and accurate process.
  • Claiming Refunds: For overpaid taxes, documented proof is essential to claim a refund.
  • Tax Basis Calculation: When selling assets like stocks or real estate, you need to determine capital gains or losses. Records are vital for calculating the tax basis, which factors in purchase price, improvements, and depreciation.

The Golden Rule: Statute of Limitations

Generally, tax records should be kept until the statute of limitations for the tax year in question expires. This period defines the timeframe for claiming refunds, amending returns, or the IRS assessing additional tax.

The federal statute of limitations for tax refunds is typically three years from the date you filed the original return or two years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. However, some states have longer limitations (often four years), so it’s wise to factor that in.

Here’s an Example:

  • Sue filed her 2023 tax return by April 15, 2024. She can discard most records after April 15, 2027.
  • Don, on the other hand, filed his 2023 return on June 2, 2024. He should keep his records until at least June 2, 2027.

Exceptions to the 3-Year Rule:

  • Omitted Income: If you significantly underreport income (over 25% of gross income), the IRS recommends keeping records for six years.
  • False or Fraudulent Returns: There’s no time limit for the IRS to assess additional tax in such cases.
  • Property Records: The IRS suggests keeping property-related records for as long as you own the property, and for at least three years after selling it. This is crucial for calculating depreciation, amortization, or gains/losses.

Financial Disability:

Taxpayers deemed “financially disabled” have a suspended refund claim period. This applies to those unable to manage finances due to a medically certified physical or mental impairment lasting at least a year.

The Big Challenge: Separating Records

Many people combine tax records with documents substantiating the basis of capital assets (stocks, bonds, real estate). These basis records should be kept much longer, ideally separated by asset. Here’s what falls into this category:

  • Stock Acquisition Data: Keep purchase records for at least four years after selling the stock, to prove profit or loss. If these sales result in a carried-forward loss (exceeding $3,000 for single filers or $1,500 for married filing separately), retain purchase and sale records for four years after filing the return where the last of the loss is used.
  • Stock & Mutual Fund Statements: Reinvested dividends add to the basis and reduce gains upon selling. Keep statements for at least four years after the final sale.
  • Tangible Property Purchase & Improvement Records: Maintain records of property acquisitions (home, investment, rental, or business) and related improvements for at least four years after selling the property.

The 10-Year Statute of Limitations on Collections:

This addresses a frequently asked question: how long can the IRS pursue unpaid taxes? The answer is 10 years from the assessed tax date, not the tax year itself. Understanding this is crucial for several reasons:

  • Collection Activities: The IRS has tools like tax liens, levies, and wage garnishments, but they’re bound by the 10-year limit.
  • Installment Agreements: Entering into an installment payment plan with the IRS doesn’t stop the 10-year clock. The IRS must collect the entire amount owed within the original 10-year period unless specific conditions extend it.


Decluttering your tax records feels great, but do so strategically. By understanding the statute of limitations, exceptions, and the importance of separate basis records, you can confidently discard unnecessary documents while ensuring you retain crucial information for the long haul. If you’re unsure about a specific record, consult a tax professional for guidance.

JS Morlu LLC is a top-tier accounting firm based in Woodbridge, Virginia, with a team of highly experienced and qualified CPAs and business advisors. We are dedicated to providing comprehensive accounting, tax, and business advisory services to clients throughout the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and the surrounding regions. With over a decade of experience, we have cultivated a deep understanding of our clients’ needs and aspirations. We recognize that our clients seek more than just value-added accounting services; they seek a trusted partner who can guide them towards achieving their business goals and personal financial well-being.
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