Don't Toss Your Tax Returns

Kiplinger

You've recommended that people keep tax returns for life. Why keep them so long if you can be audited only for three years? Can you get your returns from the IRS if you've already tossed them?

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You're right that the IRS generally has just three years after the due date of your return to initiate an audit (up to six if you failed to report more than 20% of your income). After that, you can safely toss most of your supporting documents. But there are plenty of reasons to keep your tax returns indefinitely and no reason not to; just keep a digital archive and toss the paper.

You may need your returns to establish the cost basis of investments, to contest an error on your Social Security benefits statement, or to show depreciation taken for a home office, rental property or business equipment; you may also need the returns when you apply for a mortgage or disability insurance. Bill Nemeth, an enrolled agent in Atlanta who is licensed by the IRS to assist taxpayers, has used tax returns from as far back as the 1980s to help clients during audits. He recently used old tax returns to help provide evidence for a victim of tax identity theft.

Another reason to keep your returns: You can order tax returns from the IRS for only the past six years, and they cost $57 each (see Form 4506 to order the old returns). You can order your tax transcript from the IRS for the past three years free (enrolled agents and other professionals may be able to access them faster and further back), but Nemeth says the transcript doesn't always go into enough detail to provide what you need. See How You Can Get Prior Year Tax Information from the IRS for more information. You can find an enrolled agent at the National Association of Enrolled Agents Web site.

For more information about records to keep and toss, see Declutter Your Life. Also see the IRS's Recordkeeping for Individuals.

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