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7 documents you should never lose

1. Birth certificate. Your original birth certificate (or adoption papers) is used to prove your age at various life stages, such as obtaining a driver’s license or applying for Social Security benefits. It will also help your family obtain a death certificate when the time comes.

2. Social Security card. You need the nine-digit number on this card to get a job, rent an apartment and collect government benefits, and you may need it to open a bank account or apply for a credit card. The Social Security Administration (SSA) recommends keeping your card in a safe place and only sharing your number when required.

3. Marriage license. Your marriage license affirms that you and your spouse did, indeed, get married. This can come in handy if you want to claim a Social Security spousal benefit in retirement.

4. Divorce records. Your settlement agreement includes the division of marital property and the terms for child and/or spousal support, so you’ll want to hang onto that. Plus, if you were married for 10 years or more (and aren’t remarried), you may be able to claim Social Security benefits based on your ex’s record.

5. Loan payoff statements. This is important if you’ve negotiated a settlement that’s less than the original debt. That’s because if the debt is sold to a debt collector, the new debt collector may not have a copy of the documentation proving that you settled under those terms.

6. Retirement and/or pension records. You’ll need these records to apply for your retirement benefits. The IRS notes that you should keep these records until all benefits are paid “and enough time has passed that the plan won’t be audited.” In other words, forever.

7. Will, living will and life insurance policies. In the event of your death — or if you’re unable to speak for yourself — your loved ones will need access to your will, living will and life insurance policies.

Ideally, you’ll want to keep your most important documents — which could be hard to replace — in a safe location so they’re protected from damage or loss, such as a safe deposit box or fire-proof, waterproof lock box or safe. Not a cardboard box in your leaky basement.

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What about tax records?

While you don’t need to keep your tax documents forever, it’s recommended you keep them for up to seven years. The IRS can audit returns filed within the previous three years, but may add additional years (although not usually more than six).

This means you should keep all tax-related documents and receipts, though you can save space by scanning them and storing them electronically.

If you scan documents and receipts, make sure they’re legible and accessible. Plus, make sure they’re backed up regularly, so you have duplicate copies if your computer malfunctions or your data is stolen or corrupted in a cybersecurity attack.

To scan or to shred?

Other documents should be kept for a certain period of time, though you don’t need to keep them forever. For example, if you’ve taken out a loan, keep the related paperwork until you’ve paid it off, and then save the documentation that verifies you’ve paid in full.

If you own a vehicle, hold onto the vehicle title until you sell it. For other major purchases, such as computer equipment and entertainment systems, hold onto the receipts for as long as you own them in case you need to make an insurance claim.

You’ll also want to keep receipts that verify you’ve made upgrades to your home, such as replacing the roof. If you eventually sell your home and realize a capital gain, you could qualify to exclude up to $250,000 from your income (or $500,000 if you file a joint return with your spouse), according to the IRS.

As for all those other pieces of paper? Invest in a good shredder.


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Vawn Himmelsbach Freelance Contributor

Vawn Himmelsbach is a journalist who has been covering tech, business and travel for more than two decades. Her work has been published in a variety of publications, including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, CBC News, ITbusiness, CAA Magazine, Zoomer, BOLD Magazine and Travelweek, among others.


The content provided on Moneywise is information to help users become financially literate. It is neither tax nor legal advice, is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. Tax, investment and all other decisions should be made, as appropriate, only with guidance from a qualified professional. We make no representation or warranty of any kind, either express or implied, with respect to the data provided, the timeliness thereof, the results to be obtained by the use thereof or any other matter.