The tax deadline and filing your return might be behind you, but your tax responsibility isn't really over until you begin to organize your documents for next year. Staying organized even after your taxes have been filed will make your life a lot easier in the future -- especially when life events like buying a home or refinancing your mortgage require you to show past tax returns, W-2s and other tax-related documents. Preparing your documents now will also save you time and money when it's time to file next year.
The Internal Revenue Service recommends taxpayers keep their returns and any supporting documentation for three years after the date of filing; after that, the statute of limitations for an IRS audit expires in most cases. Here are a few simple tips to help you stay organized and understand which tax documents you should keep on file and for how long.
Establish your organization system. Choose one central place to keep all your relevant tax information. This can be a folder or online system, file boxes or whatever you find works best for you. Your system should be accessible and easy to use.
Make a list of documents to store and safeguard. To prepare for future tax seasons, draw up a list of documents and papers you might need. The best way to start your list is by reading through your tax returns from the previous years -- taking into account how you filed, which deductions you took and which documents were necessary. It's also a good idea to make electronic copies of all your tax returns and supporting documents, past and present.
Gather your income documents. Your income documents include: W-2s, 1099s, rental income documents and student loan forms. The IRS recommends keeping these types of forms until the limitation period on the return runs out. If you plan to amend a return, it is important to hold onto these documents until the period of limitations has passed. The period of limitations is the period of time you can amend your tax return to claim a credit or refund or that you can be assessed additional tax by the IRS, which is three years.
Collect your expense documents. Expense documents include: property taxes, mortgage interest, student loan interest, business expenses, health care and medical expense information and any other expense-related tax forms. Other documents associated with assets should be kept until the time you sell or no longer own the property. Student loan documentation should be kept until payments are complete. For health care and medical expenses, it is important to check with your insurance provider before discarding forms; while you may no longer need forms for your tax return, your insurance provider may follow different regulations.
Hold onto your tax returns. For federal returns, the IRS recommends that you save tax return documents for three years if you have a straightforward, non-fraudulent return. If you have unreported income more than 25 percent of the gross income shown on your return, the IRS recommends saving these forms for up to six years. There is no limit to how long the IRS has to audit a fraudulent return, so if you purposely left out some income one year, you need to hold on to your tax return indefinitely.
There are also other circumstances in which you should keep tax documents longer than the standard three years, which are listed on the IRS website. For state returns, it is important to check with your state's recommendations as tax laws and recommendations on saving documents vary by state. Some states can look back further than the IRS. California and Arizona, for example, have a four-year statute of limitations, while Montana has a five-year statute.
Save personal identification documents indefinitely. Papers and cards with personal information, such as Social Security cards and birth certificates, for you and your family members should always be saved.
Lisa Greene-Lewis is a certified public accountant and TurboTax tax expert. She has more than 15 years of experience in tax preparation, including positions as a public auditor, controller and operations manager. For more tax-related tips, go to blog.turbotax.intuit.com.