Keep Paper or Toss - Just Know Which!

Legal Lad and Get-it-Done Guy tell you what paperwork you need to keep and how long.

Michael W. Flynn
April 12, 2008

First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.

Cami from Chicago wrote in:

"I am a bit of a paper hoarder.  I mean well, but I don't want to lose any important records.  My problem is I don't know when to purge these records.  I've heard lots of conflicting information about what to purge and when.  I am hoping that you could set the record straight."

We all have tons of crap lying around – which docs do you keep, and which can you toss? What is the best way to store these docs, and how long do you have to keep everything?

LL: To begin there are several documents that you should keep safe, and keep forever. These document are relevant to claiming benefits and other legal rights.

First, keep all birth, marriage, divorce, and death certificates. These documents are needed for government benefits, remarriage, and many immigration proceedings. You should store them somewhere very safe, even if it is not convenient to retrieve them. This is because you will rarely need them, but when you do, you must have the originals in many instances.

Medical records: I recommend that you keep a copy of any medical records you have regarding immunizations, hospitalizations, and prescriptions. Your doctor has a copy of your most recent files, but things like immunizations are not as likely. Also, if the doctor's office burns down, you will not have these records. Documents related to public benefits: Keep all documents related to social security, medicare, medicaid and public assistance.  They are necessary to prove eligibility and payments.

Military and Selective Service Records: Keep safe all your military records for future benefits and future service. The military will likely keep a copy, but if you ever get into a dispute with the military over your records, it is very important to have your own copy.

Immigration Documents: Immigration documents are extremely important for the rest of your life for purposes of immigrating again, and to prove eligibility to vote in some circumstances. 

GDG: There are many records you want to keep temporarily, but then get rid of, like Pat's phone number. You remember Pat? The one who dumped you in 8th grade? Yes, it's finally time to move on. Basically, you can toss documents that don’t matter anymore. Any time you pay money, keep a receipt to prove you paid. Do this for bills, credit card purchases, mortgage payments, or installment payments. Keep it until you get the next statement showing your payment and the new balance. Then you can toss the receipt, and just keep the current statement. Once you get a new statement, you can shred the current one and keep the new one. On rare occasions, I've needed to find a statement that was months or years old, but generally for a small fee, my bank or mortgage company has been able to provide a copy, easily.        

When you pay off a loan, keep a copy of the final statement proving you paid it. That way, if your credit record ever gets screwed up or someone forwards your closed loan to a collection agency, you can clear up the matter quickly. I keep loan payoff proof for seven years because I like the number seven.

When you're owed money, keep proof! If you send someone a bill or an invoice, keep a copy until it's paid. If you are awarded money as a rebate, or from a dispute award, or because you loaned someone money, get it in writing so you can prove the money should be yours. If you're loaning money to friends or family, consider using VirginMoneyUS.com. They help people loan money and track the loans in a professional manner.

For other items, like academic records, find out if you can get them again if you need them. If so, toss the paper. Believe me, your school will be thrilled beyond belief to forward your transcript to you should you need it again in the future. After all, you'll have to give them your mailing address so they'll be able to hit you up for money.

LL: Last, there are several ways to keep documents.  You should keep temporary documents in a file cabinet or drawer in your home or office that is well-organized. For those documents that require the originals, you can consider a home safe or bank safety deposit box. If you have access to a high-speed scanner, you can also just scan documents into a PDF format and save them on your computer and back up system. Most modern copiers have scanning capabilities.

Thank you for listening to Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life and Get-It-Done Guy’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More. Be sure to check out all the excellent Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts at QuickAndDirtyTips.com.

You can send questions and comments to legal@qdnow.com. Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this podcast only.

Legal documents courtesy of Shutterstock.



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