What legal papers do I really need to keep?
September 14, 2021 5:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm downsizing, which involves clearing out unnecessary paperwork. I know to keep tax returns for seven years, but everything I'm finding about legal papers says to keep them forever. Can that be true?

I get that I need to keep my divorce papers, but do I really need all the paperwork from a child support/custody dispute when said children are in their forties? Do I need to show that I inherited $3000 from my grandmother in 1985? What do I really need from the house I bought in 1981 and sold in 1987?

I was also involved in a property dispute that was just resolved in the last three years. There were many court filings. Do I need all of them? Is there a way to decide what to keep? Does the county keep copies of this stuff anyway? I'm planning to sell the property, so it seems good to keep the paperwork until then - but can I get rid of it afterwards? Ten years from now?

I don't need to be told digitizing exists, but if you know of a super easy service I could use for that, share away. And if I send them somewhere, aren't I risking losing them anyway? I'm also aware that my house could burn down and I could lose them that way.

Thank you!
posted by FencingGal to Law & Government (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I am very much absolutely not a lawyer. But I have shredded almost all of my old legal documents that don't pertain to the present, and tax files before a certain date, because much of that advice about keeping papers was written when paper files were the only record. The IRS knows exactly how much I have owed and paid. The house I sold in 2006 is firmly in the possession of its new owner, and so is the house I sold before that. When there was a legal dispute about the house before the last one, I got a letter in the mail, and I got in touch with the attorney who sent it and said I hadn't owned it for over a decade, and that was the last I heard of it because that stuff was recorded legally when I sold the house and he could look it up.
posted by Peach at 6:13 AM on September 14

Response by poster: much of that advice about keeping papers was written when paper files were the only record

Thanks. This is the advice I'm finding searching online now - mostly on sites connected to law firms. I can't find anything that says otherwise (maybe someone else can).
posted by FencingGal at 6:18 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Anything filed with a court will be on record with that court. It may not always be easy or convenient to access, but if a paper has that rectangular blue FILED datestamp, you can always get a copy from the court if you need it.

Theoretically, your lawyer and the other party's lawyer should have copies of any correspondence and other paperwork that wouldn't have been filed with a court. Again, you can probably get copies if you need them - maybe not easily or conveniently, but probably more easily and conveniently than lugging around boxes of old documents.

Whether you digitize or not, it's probably not a bad idea to create a list of what papers you had. That will make it easier for the court clerk or law firm admin retrieving your copies. Things like "letter from [your attorney] to [other party] regarding [topic] sent [date]". That way, you're not just saying "uh, I think there was a letter sometime in 2017 or maybe late 2016 or something like that".
posted by kevinbelt at 6:39 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

I keep anything related to my name change and divorce because literally every person and institution on earth is a pain in the ass about it, even so many years later. My tax returns are all on DropBox - previous to that I have them in manila envelopes but those will soon be shredded.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:00 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

This is not legal advice but I’d say it would be fine to let go of papers filed with the court for things that are completely finished and 5-10 years in the past.

I would be sure to write down the court name, index number and caption as anything filed with a court you should be able to get a copy of even if it’s super inconvenient and that’s the information you’d need.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 7:02 AM on September 14

The answer here is generally it depends. In addition to the points people have already made one thing that drives this is how much time after the fact others/the tax authorities have to recover any money owed from you.

In most jurisdictions there are time limits for financial claims, not just for criminal matters. Rules may vary for different kinds of transactions and information. Ideally, you hold on to documents as long as somebody can make a claim against you so you can use them as evidence if necessary.

So you may want to investigate these rules in your jurisdiction and see what it means for your documents.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:58 AM on September 14

I think in most cases a scanned image of the document is sufficient (and I can highly recommend getting something like a Fujitsu ScanSnap which scans both sides of the paper simultaneously, very rapidly, and comes with decent software for 'scan to file' 'scan to email', OCR if necessary.

I would _not_ count on Dropbox or other cloud storage as my only copy. Make two or three copies of those image files on a USB flash drive, SD card, or external hard drive or "burn" a CD/DVD if you have that kind of drive, and put them in your safe and/or safe deposit box. Dropbox, Google Drive, et al are good services but as with all businesses circumstances outside your control could cause them to go out of business or decide not to offer free storage any more. Media you own is completely within your control
posted by TimHare at 8:09 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

I would keep the information about the property dispute until you sell the property. While you probably would be able to get hold of the documents again, it is likely to be less hassle just to store them given that you plan to sell. Once you have sold the property, I would keep anything that was referred to in the transaction that is still in your possession, since those were probably the important papers.

In my jurisdiction, it's worth keeping paperwork of substantive inheritances or other windfalls indefinitely because if you want to use that money in a major transaction (eg to buy property) you will need to provide evidence that it is not the proceeds of money laundering. In this case the bar for "substantive" gets eroded by inflation.

Otherwise, I think you are looking for the relevant statutes of limitations for different types of transactions.
posted by plonkee at 8:55 AM on September 14

I asked this one recently, which may also have some good info in it. After that, I spoke with my CPA who advised me that there is no need to keep paper files of tax records as long as my digital records are complete, backed up sufficiently, and organized well enough that I can actually find things if I need them. So I went ahead and scanned + shredded pretty much all of it except receipts and such for the current year.
posted by primethyme at 8:58 AM on September 14

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