How long do I have to keep birth certificates, tax returns?

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Q. I have read multiple places that some records, including divorce decrees and birth certificates, should be kept “indefinitely” after a person’s demise. Why? Of what value are these documents? I don’t really want to burden my step-children with their dad’s divorce decree from their mother who died over a decade ago, nor my children with my parent’s birth certificates, etc.
— Overwhelmed with paperwork

A. As you mention, just about any list that relates to the retention of important documents will include in the “keep it forever” category birth certificates, marriage licenses and divorce decrees.

They are immediately needed when an individual dies in order to obtain the information to complete the death certificate, said Claudia Mott, a certified financial planner with Epona Financial Solutions in Basking Ridge.

“In the case of a divorced individual, the final decree might be the only record that an individual was no longer married and there is a surviving ex-spouse,” she said. “The importance of the divorce decree could be a factor if a death occurs and no will was in place, it cannot be located or it was outdated.”

Retaining the divorce decree can help with settling the estate. Even though a death may have occurred some time ago, holding on to the divorce decrees until all parties have passed and their estates finalized may prevent a potential dispute from interrupting the probate process, Mott said.

As you noted, over the course of many generations, these documents can add up and be cumbersome to manage.

“Birth certificates and marriage licenses are often used by those who are working on building a family genealogical history and can provide missing dates and information,” Mott said. “While it may seem like a burden to pass on your family’s history, it’s hard to know when someone from another generation might find these of value.”

She suggests using a three-ring binder with plastic divider sheets to organize and store these papers along with an explanation of what is enclosed and who the individuals are in the family tree.

“When it comes to tax returns, the retention period is generally three years for the forms and all the supporting documentation which could be requested in the event of an audit,” Mott said. “However, if income was understated by 25% or more, records should be kept for six years.”

These days, the online storage of statements at banks, investment custodians, brokerage firms and credit card companies has made the task of keeping historical records far less cumbersome and much safer than having paper copies in one’s home, she said.

“While it may seem far fetched, there are instances of fraud that can take place involving birth and death certificates,” she said. “Having the original documents might enable an individual to provide the proof necessary to get an account closed that was opened fraudulently.”

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This story was originally published on Nov. 9, 2020.

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