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A messy desk with a stack of papers and a calculator on top - tax records.

Read This Before Tossing Old Tax Records

The tax season dust has settled, and you’re left with a filing drawer overflowing with receipts, W-2s, and cryptic bank statements. The temptation to toss it all might be strong, but before you unleash your inner shredder, hold on! Deciding which tax records to keep and which to discard can be a tricky business. Fear not, fellow taxpayer, for this guide will illuminate the path to record-keeping clarity.

Why We Keep Those Paper Trails

We hoard these documents for two main reasons:

  1. IRS Audits: The dreaded audit. The IRS has three years (six in some cases) from your return’s due date to question your numbers. Having your records ready is your defense shield.
  2. Capital Gains Woes: Selling stocks, property, or other assets? You need to track their basis (original purchase price) to calculate taxable gains or losses. Keeping those records until you dispose of the asset is crucial.

The Three-Year Rule and Beyond

Generally, for federal taxes, most records older than three years can be sent packing. However, several factors can extend that timeline:

  • State Statutes: Some states have longer audit windows, so add an extra year or two to the three-year rule if you live in one.
  • 25% Omission Penalty: If you forgot to report more than 25% of your income, the IRS has six years to come knocking.
  • Fraudulent Returns: No statute of limitations exists for fraudulent returns. Keep those records forever, buried deep in a lead-lined vault, just in case.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

The tricky part comes when combining regular tax records with those crucial basis records for capital assets. Here’s how to avoid future headaches:

  • Stock Records: Keep purchase records for four years after selling the stock. This proves your profit (or loss) and allows you to carry forward any losses to future returns.
  • Mutual Fund Mania: Reinvested dividends add to your basis, so keep those statements for four years after the final sale.
  • Property Palooza: Acquisition and improvement records for homes, investments, rentals, or business properties should be kept for four years after selling the underlying asset.
  • Business Losses: If your business has a net operating loss (NOL) you’ll carry forward, keep all substantiating records for four years after filing the return where you use up the last of the NOL.

The Bottom Line

When in doubt, don’t throw it out! It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to tax records. If you’re still unsure, consult a tax professional. They can help you navigate the labyrinthine world of record-keeping and ensure you’re not left scrambling for missing documents during a future audit.


  • The three-year rule is a good starting point, but consider state statutes and special cases.
  • Separate basis records for capital assets and keep them until you dispose of the asset.
  • When in doubt, keep it! You can always shred later, but retrieving lost records is a nightmare.

By following these tips, you can conquer the clutter and confidently manage your tax records, past, present, and future. So go forth, organize, and shred with wisdom!

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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