Keeping Records - why, what, where and how long?

Jane K. Frobose
Colorado State University Extension
Family and Consumer Education
Denver County, February 2008

Why keep records?

Think of your household as a mini-business, performing the tasks of planning, buying, saving and investing, only on a smaller scale. Some records are required to assist in tax preparation. Others are needed in case of a crisis, such as death, fire or theft. Proof of payment(s) and ownership of property require records. They provide a useful summary of financial situation, medical, employment and lifestyle history. It is critical that family records be maintained to insure easy access to necessary information.

What to keep?

Basic records are valuable papers or documents that are use frequently. These include driver's license; health, life and car insurance; car registration; identification or citizenship information; and information on special health concerns such as allergies, disabling conditions and blood type. These are records that should be easily accessible and available for day-to-day use.

Personal records also include family health records; birth, marriage, death and divorce certificates or decrees; deeds; leases; contracts; wills; and military and social security papers.

Records for financial or equipment emergencies include a list of credit cards, card numbers and phone or contact numbers of companies. Guarantees, warranties and appliance manuals for household items should be kept in a safe place.

Records that are needed on a monthly basis are current family spending plans and budget, unpaid bills and loan payment books. Financial records prove income and expenses. The IRS does not require records kept in a particular way. Keep them in a manner that works for you.


How often it is used and replacement difficulty should determine where the record is kept. The main places are:

  1. bank safe deposit box or a fireproof home storage container
  2. wallet or purse
  3. home filing system

A good rule is to keep your records in a home filing system unless it is a legal document or one that will be difficult to replace or duplicate. The best place for these is in a safe deposit box or in a fireproof, theft-proof storage at home. Home storage units should be able to withstand heat of 1700 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour.

Know the location of important papers. Have a current, up-to-date listing and their location. Make at least three copies of your valuable papers inventory. Keep one in your home file, another in a location not in your home such as a bank safe deposit box, and give one to a relative, trusted friend, your attorney and/or the person designated to handle your affairs in case of disability or death.

If valuable papers cannot be located, replacements need to be obtained as quickly as possible. Most papers must be replaced by the issuing agency or organization. Birth, death, marriage and divorce certification can usually be obtained from the office of vital statistics in the capital city of the state where the event occurred. In Colorado, contact the Vital Records Section of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. For information on obtaining records from other states, write the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Co. 81009 and ask for the leaflet, "Where to Write for Vital Papers." There is a small fee for this publication. For information via the web, access – United State Vital Records Information.

How long?

Even the best record-keeping system will not fill your needs forever. At least once a year, plan to review files and do some housecleaning.

All records that might be used as proof of ownership should be retained. Keep records that might be necessary for resale purposes, those that relate to income tax deductions and others, which might have value as reference for specific financial transactions such as verification of the original cost or value of property and major home improvement costs. When in doubt, don't throw it out.

Certain family records need to be kept indefinitely. The following are permanent records: birth certificates, citizenship papers, marriage and/or divorce certificates, military records, wills, current insurance policies, employment and education records, credit card information and information on pension records and family health records.

Before making the decision to discard records, especially tax related records, check current IRS regulations at or ask an accountant. The following are examples of items you might discard: bank statements and receipts of transactions for accounts that are closed; cancelled checks that are not needed as receipts for proof of purchase or income tax purposes; records of appliances that have been replaced; warranties which have expired and care instructions for garments that have been discarded.

For more information on Recordkeeping for Individuals, access . Publication 552.

Revise 1-08. Jane K Frobose Review: L Kubin. M. Snow. CCA: Strong Families, Healthy Homes. Family Economic Stability Work team.

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Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014