After you have filed your tax return for this year, take a few minutes to organize your tax records and store them where you can find them. You never know when you or your business might be audited, and you need to be ready.
But how long do you need to keep them for?
Why Save Tax Records?
In addition to using your tax records for your own personal or business purposes, you’ll need to save them to document the source of the information on your tax return and to support your business and personal income, deductions, and credits in case of a tax audit.
Businesses have more detailed requirements for keeping records, because they can take tax deductions for ordinary and necessary business expenses. For example, they must show business purpose on travel receipts and other receipts.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) time limits for keeping tax records are the same for both businesses and individuals.
What’s the Rule on Keeping Tax Records?
In general, the IRS says you must keep records that support your claims on your tax return for income, deductions, and credits during what the agency calls the “period of limitations” for that return.
The period of limitations is the time when either:
- You can amend your return to claim a credit or refund; or
- The IRS can assess additional tax
The time limits usually begin running when you file the return, but if you file before the due date, the time limit runs from the due date. For example, if you file on March 15, the limitation begins on April 15 (or that year’s due date). But if you get an extension and file on October 15, the limitation starts from that date.
Some years, taxes are not due on April 15. In 2021, businesses in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma have until June 15 to file their 2020 tax returns. This is a one-time extension provided by the IRS in response to the 2021 winter storms. Taxpayers in other areas have until May 17, 2021, to file their federal 2020 taxes, but this applies to individuals only, not businesses.
In most cases, the period of limitations is three years from the date you filed the return, but there are different limits for some situations.
Limits When You Didn’t Report Income
The limit is six years if you didn’t report income that should have been reported, and it’s more than 25% of the gross income (from all sources) on the return, or it’s attributable to foreign financial assets and more than $5,000.
Limits on Making Claims
If you want to claim a refund, you must make the claim within three years from the date you filed the return for that year (or the due date), or two years from the date when the tax was paid, whichever is later.
To file a claim for an overpayment from a bad debt deduction or a loss from worthless securities, you must make the claim within seven years from the date the return was due.
Limits on Property Records
Keep property records until the period of limitations expires for the year when you sold or disposed of the property.
For example, if you are audited because you owe money on your 2020 tax return, and you sold a business vehicle during 2019, you must save the records for this vehicle for three years from the date you filed your 2020 tax return or the due date if you filed before that date.
If you file a fraudulent return, or you don’t file a return, there’s no period of limitations on when the IRS can assess tax on that return.
Saving Tax Returns and Payroll Tax Records
Don’t forget to save your past tax returns. The time limits for keeping these returns are the same as for other tax records: three years, in most cases.
Businesses must keep payroll and employee information for audits for at least four years after the employee leaves your company. See this article on keeping paycheck records for more details.
The American Bar Association cautions you not to destroy old tax returns.
A Quick Comparison on Keeping Tax Records
The number of years you must keep records:
|Situation||Number of Years from Filing Date or Due Date|
|If you owe money||3 years from the filing date (assumed to be the due date)|
|If you didn’t report all your income||6 years from the due date or filing date, whichever is later|
|If you want a refund||3 years from the date the return was filed or 2 years from the date the tax was paid, whichever is later|
|If you want to file a claim for overpayment for a bad debt deduction or loss from worthless securities||7 years from the date the return was due|
|Fraudulent tax return or no tax return filed||No limit|
|Property records||The limitation period begins when the property is sold or otherwise disposed of.|
State Requirements for Saving Tax Records
Most U.S. states follow the IRS federal rules for keeping tax records, but some have longer periods of limitations. This article on keeping state tax records has details.
What if a Record Is Missing or Destroyed?
What do you do if you don't have a record of a deduction or expense that you claimed on your taxes?
If, for example, you don’t have a canceled check or electronic receipt to prove a deduction, you can start by checking with your bank to see whether it has a copy of the record. You may also use a bank or investment firm financial statement to show the transaction, as long as it is “highly legible.”
If your records have been destroyed in a disaster like a flood or fire, you can:
- Get copies of your tax returns by using the IRS’ Get Transcript service or call 800-908-9946 to order them.
- Get credit card and bank statements from your financial institution.
- Get copies of records related to the property by contacting the company that handled the purchase.
- Get in touch with contractors who built or remodeled your home. You can also get written descriptions from friends and relatives who saw the property before and after it was destroyed.
- For inherited property, check court records, or talk to the attorney who handled the trust or estate.
- For cars, search Kelley Blue Book, the National Automobile Dealers Association, or Edmunds for current fair market values.
IRS. "Tax Day for Individuals Extended to May 17: Treasury, IRS Extend Filing and Payment Deadline." Accessed March 25, 2021.
IRS. "Topic No. 305 Recordkeeping." Accessed March 25, 2021.
American Bar Association. "IRS Can Audit for Three Years, Six, or Forever: Here’s How to Tell." Accessed March 25, 2021.
IRS. "Taxpayers Can Follow These Steps after a Disaster to Reconstruct Records." Accessed March 25, 2021.