Recordkeeping Basics: Individual Taxpayers

Recordkeeping Basics

After your tax returns have been filed, several questions arise: What do you do with the stack of paperwork? What should you keep? What should you throw away? Will you ever need any of these documents again? Fortunately, recent tax provisions have made it easier for you to part with some of your tax-related clutter.

The IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 created quite a stir when it shifted the “burden of proof” from the taxpayer to the IRS. Although it would appear that this would translate into less of a headache for taxpayers (from a recordkeeping standpoint at least), it doesn’t let us off of the hook entirely. Keeping good records is still the best defense against any future questions that the IRS may bring up. Here are some basic guidelines for you to follow as you sift through your tax and financial records:

Copies of returns. Your returns (and all supporting documentation) should be kept until the expiration of the statute of limitations for that tax year, which in most cases is three years after the date on which the return was filed. It’s recommended that you keep your tax records for six years, since in some cases where a substantial understatement of income exists, the IRS may go back as far as six years to audit a tax return. In cases of suspected tax fraud or if you never file a return at all, the statute of limitations never expires.

Personal residence. With tax provisions allowing couples to generally take the first $500,000 of profits from the sale of their home tax-free, some people may think this is a good time to purge all of those escrow documents and improvement records. And for most people it is true that you only need to keep papers that document how much you paid for the house, the cost of any major improvements, and any depreciation taken over the years. But before you light a match to the rest of the heap, you need to consider the possibility of the following scenarios:

Your gain is more than $500,000 when you eventually sell your house. It could happen. If you couple past deferred gains from prior home sales with future appreciation and inflation, you could be looking at a substantial gain when you sell your house 15+ years from now. It’s also possible that tax laws will change in that time, meaning you’ll want every scrap of documentation that will support a larger cost basis in the home sold.

You did not use the home as a principal residence for a period. A relatively new income inclusion rule applies to home sales after December 31, 2008. Under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, gain from the sale of a principal residence will no longer be excluded from gross income for periods that the home was not used as the principal residence. These periods of time are referred to as “non-qualifying use.” The rule applies to sales occurring after December 31, 2008, but is based only on non-qualified use periods beginning on or after January 1, 2009. The amount of gain attributed to periods of non-qualified use is the amount of gain multiplied by a fraction, the numerator of which is the aggregate period of non-qualified use during which the property was owned by the taxpayer and the denominator of which is the period the taxpayer owned the property. Remember, however, that “non-qualified” use does not include any use prior to 2009.

You may divorce or become widowed. While realizing more than a $500,000 gain on the sale of a home seems unattainable for most people, the gain exclusion for single people is only $250,000, definitely a more realistic number. While a widow(er) will most likely get some relief due to a step-up in basis upon the death of a spouse, an individual may find themselves with a taxable gain if they receive the house in a property settlement pursuant to a divorce. Here again, sufficient documentation to prove a larger cost basis is desirable.

Individual Retirement Accounts. Roth IRA and education IRAs require varying degrees of recordkeeping:

Traditional IRAs. Distributions from traditional IRAs are taxable to the extent that the distributions exceed the holder’s cost basis in the IRA. If you have made any nondeductible IRA contributions, then you may have basis in your IRAs. Records of IRA contributions and distributions must be kept until all funds have been withdrawn. Form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs, is used to keep track of the cost basis of your IRAs on an ongoing basis.

Roth IRAs. Earnings from Roth IRAs are not taxable except in certain cases where there is a premature distribution prior to reaching age 59 1/2. Therefore, recordkeeping for this type of IRA is the fairly simple. Statements from your IRA trustee may be worth keeping in order to document contributions that were made should you ever need to take a withdrawal before age 59 1/2.

Education IRAs. Because the proceeds from this type of an IRA must be used for a particular purpose (qualified tuition expenses), you should keep records of all expenditures made until the account is depleted (prior to the holder’s 30th birthday). Any expenditures not deemed by the IRS to be qualified expenses will be taxable to the holder.

Investments. Brokerage firm statements, stock purchase and sales confirmations, and dividend reinvestment statements are examples of documents you should keep to verify the cost basis in your securities. If you have securities that you acquired from an inheritance or a gift, it is important to keep documentation of your cost basis. For gifts, this would include any records that support the cost basis of the securities when they were held by the person who gave you the gift. For inherited securities, you will want a copy of any estate or trust returns that were filed.

Keep in mind that there are also many nontax reasons to keep tax and financial records, such as for insurance, home/personal loan, or financial planning purposes. The decision to keep financial records should be made after all factors, including nontax factors, have been considered.