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.