How Long to Keep Tax Records: Can You Ever Throw Them Away?

Find out how long you should keep tax returns.

Once you’ve submitted your tax return to the Internal Revenue Service each year, the last thing you probably want to think about is how to store your tax records. But making these arrangements is essential to protect yourself in the event of a future IRS audit.

The general rule is to keep your tax records for three years, but there are several important exceptions for when you might need to keep your tax records for a longer period as a taxpayer. Read on to learn how long to keep your tax records and when you can safely dispose of them.

Determining Expiration of the Statute of Limitations

Typically, the statute of limitations for the IRS to audit your tax return is generally three years. For an income tax return, the period of limitations is three years. But the IRS says it’s wise to keep your tax returns even longer. For example, if the IRS audits you, you’ll have the documents you need to protect yourself from an audit. The statute of limitations starts running on the later of the due date for your tax return or the date on which you file your taxes.

Special Tax Items

You’ll need to keep your records for seven years if you claim a deduction of worthless securities or bad debts. For example, if you lent a friend $10,000 under a promissory note and the friend went bankrupt, keep records to prove that it was a legitimate debt discharged in bankruptcy that was never paid.

Another special tax item is employment taxes. Keep records for employment taxes for four years from the later of the date the tax is due or the date you pay the tax.

Learn: 30 Ways to Prevent a Tax Audit

Records Related to Property

When your tax return includes information related to property, keep those records until the statute of limitations — typically three years — runs out for the year in which you sell or otherwise dispose of the property.

For example, if you bought a car in 2010, use it as part of your business and then sell it in 2020, you should keep all of those car-related tax records until the statute of limitations expires for your 2020 tax return.

In addition, keep your old property records until the statute runs out on the tax year you dispose of the new property if you exchange the property for another property to which you transfer your cost basis.

For example, say you use a 1031 exchange to sell a rental property and invest the proceeds tax-free into a new rental property. Your basis in the new property is dependent on your basis in the old rental property. As a result, keep the old rental property records until the statute runs on the tax year that you sell the replacement property.

Tax Deductions 2018: 50 Tax Write-Offs You Don’t Know About             

Other Circumstances for Extended Statutes of Limitations

In some circumstances, the statute of limitations is longer than three years.  For example, if you don’t report income that you’re required to report, and it exceeds 25 percent of the income shown on that year’s tax return, the IRS has six years to audit your return.

In addition, not filing or filing a fraudulent tax return allows the IRS to audit you indefinitely. So keep any tax records for those years permanently.

How to Store Documents

You can keep your tax documents in a fireproof safe or a bank’s safe deposit box. But to conserve space, consider scanning all of your tax-related documents and saving them to an external hard drive or on a cloud service. As long as you can reproduce the documents and they are legible, the IRS accepts electronic copies.

Click through to see the receipts to keep for doing your taxes.

More on Tax Refunds

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Ruth Sarreal contributed to the reporting for this article.

About the Author

Michael Keenan is a writer based in the Kansas City area, specializing in personal finance, taxation, and business topics. He has been writing since 2009 and has been published by Quicken, TurboTax and The Motley Fool.