Record-Retention Scheduling: Trying to Identify The One Paper in a Hundred That Will Be Needed

        A rule of thumb is that the longer a bill goes uncollected, the less likely it is ever to be paid.  The same might be said about the contents of file cabinets – the longer they stay there the less likelihood there is of their ever being needed.

        Unfortunately, however, there are two reasons why you can’t just chuck everything after a year or two, thereby clearing out valuable storage space:

1)    Although only one document out of a hundred may ever be needed, that indispensable single piece of paper is hard to identify in advance.

2)    Various laws, together perhaps with the requirements peculiar to a particular industry, may demand that some papers be saved for specified periods – or indefinitely.  

        Many of the records retained are needed in order to file accurate tax returns and to document the claims made in those returns, should they be audited.  The IRS doesn’t tell us which books or records to maintain; it simply requires that there must be support for representation made.

How Long to Keep Them?

        How long must tax-related papers be kept?  For most tax data, the statute of limitations runs out three years after a return is due or filed:  There are reasons why some documents must be kept longer, however.  If you wish to establish basis of a piece of property acquired and improved over many years, you’ll need documentation going way back, too; and, of course, if there is omission from gross income of 25 percent or more, the statute of limitations is six years, while in cases of fraud there is no time limitation at all.

        Branches of government other than the IRS also require companies to maintain all sorts of books and records, covering everything from elevator inspection to the purity of food products, the health and safety of employees and the justification for government grants, loans or subsidies.  Federal rules are summarized in a book, Guide to Record Retention Requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations.  Although this volume, while extensive, is not all-inclusive, it might be worth consulting at your public library if the industry you are in is subject to federal agency regulation – and which industry isn’t?  Simply having employees, for example, puts you under the purview of the Labor Department.

        Various lists of recommended document retentions generally agree on documents that should be kept permanently – income tax returns, for example, and property records.  The accompanying chart was based on a consensus of several such lists.  Before adopting it as your own, however, you would want to make provision for types of documentation unique to your own business and then, no doubt, review the result with us.

Typical Record-Retention Schedule*

 Retain indefinitely

  1. Audit reports and financial statements

  2. Canceled checks for taxes, capital purchases, important contacts

  3. Capital stock and bond records

  4. Cash books

  5. Contracts and leases in force

  6. Copyrights, patents, trademark registrations

  7. Corporation charter, minute books and bylaws

  8. Correspondence on legal and tax matters

  9. Deeds, mortgages, easements and other property records

  10. General ledgers and journals

  11. Insurance records

  12. Property appraisals

  13. Tax returns and work papers, including records to support carrybacks and carryovers

Retain 7-8 years

  1. Other canceled checks

  2. Vouchers for payments to venders, employees, etc.

  3. Inventories

  4. Payroll records, including time sheets

  5. Expense reports

  6. Payables and receivables ledgers

  7. Expired contracts and leases

  8. Purchase orders

  9. Invoices and other sales records

  10. Plant cost ledgers

Retain 6 years

  1. Monthly trial balances

  2. Employee withholdings tax statements

  3. Employee disability benefits records

Retain 3 years

  1. Personnel files on terminated employees

  2. Bank Reconciliations

  3. Petty Cash Vouchers

  4. Expired insurance policies with no residual values

Retain 2 years

  1. General correspondence

  2. Requisitions

* The above list is only a rough guide, requiring adjustment to specific needs and statutory requirements.  Legal counsel is advisable before putting a record-retention schedule into effect.