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Home records retention

Dear Dr. Don,
What types of papers do I need to keep and how long? I have my canceled checks from 1970. I am afraid to throw anything away. What about old car titles and old utility bills? I really don't have any problems with my bills; I'm just confused about when and what to shred!
Pack Rat

Dear Pack,
This is one area where "When in doubt, throw it out!" just doesn't work. While there are Web sites such as Organized Forever, I found the information provided by the North Dakota State University Extension Service to be very useful because it combined document retention information along with a filing system that split items between current files, inactive files and a safety deposit box in its Guide for Family Records.

Record

Where to keep it

How long to keep it

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Safe deposit box or fireproof home storage

Permanently

Motor vehicle titles, purchase receipts

Safe deposit box

Duration of ownership

Canceled checks (nondeductible expenditures)

Home storage

Minimum of three years

Canceled checks
(tax-deductible expenditures)

Home storage

Minimum of six years

Tax returns

Home storage

Minimum of six years

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None of the guides I reviewed specifically mentioned utility bills. When you go to sell your home, potential buyers often ask for an accounting of your monthly utility expenses. My power provider, Florida Power & Light, provides a billing history online. Your provider may do something similar.

If that's the case, there's no real reason to hold on to the old utility bills. If you can deduct utility expenses for your home office or some other reasons, however, then you would want to keep the bills for a minimum of six years along with other supporting documents for your tax records.

The federal government's public information site also has information about home record keeping, if you want to see the government's view on what you should keep.

-- Updated: Oct. 22, 2003

Read more Dr. Don columns
See Also
Tax record keeping doesn't have to be a hassle
Tax-related records you should keep, and for how long
Financial advice glossary
More Dr. Don stories

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