The short answer to the question “How long should I keep my business and personal financial records?” is this: as long as they serve an important purpose, but not before or beyond accepted document retention times.
Likewise, there are overriding legal requirements that may force you to keep many records permanently. In the latter case, electronic storage may be a good alternative to keeping all that paper around. For example, the IRS permits electronic storage in lieu of maintaining paper files for certain types of tax documents.
The Pyramid Approach to Document Destruction
Say that your business has been around for 7 years or more. If your office file cabinets are starting to fill up or your rented storage area won’t accommodate next year’s paper data dump, you should get serious about cleaning out the papers you don’t need.
Think of document retention as a pyramid arrangement. At the top are the records you need to keep permanently. The middle tier are those records with a 7-year retention requirement, which covers the majority of records. At the base of our pyramid are those paper records that you can gather up and destroy between 2 and 4 years.
Starting at the base of the pyramid and working up, here are some general categories of records you can begin cleaning out after the time period specified:
Personal Bank Statements and canceled checks (3 years)
Employee personnel files (4 years from date of termination)
Tier 2 (7 years)
Business bank statements and bank deposit slips
IRS Payroll and payroll tax records
Employee expense reports
Legal documents (Expired contracts and leases, employee agreements)
Employee 401K Statements/1099s/IRA statements
Tier 3 (Permanent)
Company fixed assets reports, financial statements, etc.
Articles of incorporation, partnership agreements, etc.
Business tax returns
Additional Guidance on How Long to Keep Records
The foregoing is only a sampling of document retention standards. Before you embark on an ambitious paper shredding expedition, do some careful research. Below are three reliable sources:
Check with the IRS for tax records retention standards. To recap, you must keep employee withholding records for 7 years. Company tax returns, tax bills and statements along with 1099 forms for contractor or non-employee compensation must be kept permanently.
When it is time to get serious about document destruction, paper shredding is the most secure way to destroy business records. If you are a “covered entity” under HIPAA or are covered by federal and state privacy laws, you could face heavy fines and other sanctions if you do not properly destroy confidential information.
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