Spring Cleaning Guide: Paperwork and Documents

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We accumulate a lot of papers throughout our lives. From school report cards to tax forms to health insurance, all that paperwork stacks up. By the time we reach a certain age, it’s easy to lose track of what’s essential and what can be thrown away. If you’re like many seniors, you probably have boxes crammed with old papers that are creating clutter in your apartment.

As we approach spring cleaning season, here’s your step-by-step guide to spring cleaning your essential paperwork, including what you should keep and what you can toss.

Step One: Organize

Maybe you already have a meticulous filing system for all your paperwork. But if you’re like many people, it’s all a jumble. Start by organizing all your papers into the following categories:

-       Monthly bills, bank statements, and receipts
-       Investment statements
-       Tax returns and documentation
-       Policy documents and deeds (insurance policies, home deeds, car titles…)
-       Warranties and user manuals
-       Forever documents (marriage license, birth certificate, will…)

Step Two: Identify the Essentials

Once you have all your papers organized by category, it’s time to decide what you should keep and what you can throw out. Here are some basic principles to follow.

Ongoing bills and statements: Keep utility bills and bank statements for one year. Receipts only need to be kept for a month, until you can check them against your monthly statement. Hold onto receipts for large purchases (such as furniture) that you might include in an insurance claim, along with a photo of the item.

Investment statements: You only need your annual statements; toss all the monthly updates.

Tax returns and documentation: The IRS has three years to challenge tax filings, so you must keep at least three years’ worth of documentation. Dispose of any statements you have from more than three years ago.

Policy documents and deeds: Keep policy statements for any active account, such as health insurance or life insurance policies, as well as the deeds to any currently owned homes or cars. Get rid of documentation for inactive policies; they will only make it more confusing for anyone trying to locate your current policy.

Warranties and user manuals: Only hold onto active warranties; throw away any that are expired. If you’re comfortable with the internet, there’s no need to keep user manuals—all manufacturers post downloadable versions online.

Forever documents: Never throw away a forever document! Store these documents in a fireproof, waterproof, secure place, such as a safe. You may even decide to hand forever documents over to a responsible adult child so that they have easy access to them should something happen to you.

Step Three: Secure Disposal

Shred everything you decide to get rid of, don’t just throw it in the trash. By some estimates, as many as nine million Americans are victims of identity fraud each year. Personal data pulled from trash is a leading origin of identity theft.

Step Four: Organize

You’ve come full circle. Now that you’ve reduced your paperwork load to only the essentials, re-organize it and store it somewhere safe. Share its location with your children and close family members so they can easily access it in the event that you are unable to do so yourself.

Organizing your paperwork is not only a good way to reduce clutter, but it makes life easier for both you and your loved ones. Planning ahead and organizing your affairs as much as possible makes things move more smoothly and efficiently in the event of an emergency. Being able to quickly locate a health insurance policy or living will can save precious time in a stressful situation.

Dedicate some time in the next couple months to do a thorough spring cleaning of your paperwork. You and your family will all feel more secure and at peace knowing that your affairs are in good order and prepared for any eventuality.

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