Get Organized! How to Maintain Your Personal Financial Files

Written by Paula Hogan on .

Everyone needs to keep certain personal financial files more or less permanently. But which files should you keep, and why do you need to keep them? How long should you keep them and in what format?

This article serves as a brief guide to organizing your personal paperwork.

In this article

Why Keep All Those Papers?

You need to maintain personal financial files in order to prepare for any number of contingencies. These include:

Tax Audits and Calculations: Your tax return might be audited. Tax authorities at both the federal and state levels have the right to reopen your tax return at any time if there is a suspicion of fraud. However, most audits are designed to resolve less troubling discrepancies, with various audit deadlines typically set to occur within seven years. This audit risk creates the need to keep tax and supporting documentation in general for seven years.

You also need cost basis information for all your investments to protect against paying too much tax. That means keeping a record of the original cost plus, in the case of securities, a record of all reinvested interest and dividend income, and in the case of real estate, the cost of any permanent improvements you might have made on the property.

Sales Disputes: In a sales dispute you are best prepared if you have some kind of proof of your part in the transaction—e.g., a warranty for an appliance, or documentation that you have paid a home contractor in full, or that a particular insurance coverage is or was in place for a specified time and situation.

A Natural Disaster or Terrorist Act: As victims of Hurricane Katrina experienced firsthand, it is possible that you could need to leave your home on short notice, leaving personal possessions and records behind. This possibility creates the need for duplicate offsite storage of personal papers, and also some plan for what you would take with you if you had just a few moments before evacuating your home.

A Personal Medical Event: In the event of your sudden death or incapacity, it?s highly protective for you to have your named agents for medical and financial affairs fully informed of the details of your personal data, so they will be ready to act on your behalf.

Transmission of Family History: Each of us at some point becomes the means by which information about the family gets passed down to the next generation. Thus, there is a need to consider how and which family records to keep—including personal possessions, diaries, photographs, and stories.

A Structure You Can Use

If you keep paper files, set up your filing cabinet with the major sections outlined below. If you prefer computer files, set up personal folders as indicated, and then add scanned documents.

Income Taxes
Keep a copy of each federal and state income tax return filed in the last seven years, along with supporting documentation.

Estate Planning
Keep documents prepared by your attorney (including most typically wills, trust agreements, durable powers of attorney for both medical and financial affairs, and for married couples pre- and post-nuptial agreements), plus a copy of all gift tax returns and the beneficiary designation page for each retirement account and for each life insurance policy (ideally with documentation from the financial institution acknowledging receipt of the beneficiary designation).

Have a separate file for each kind of insurance—for instance, health, disability, long-term care, life, property and liability, and car insurance.

For each policy currently in force, have a copy of the actual policy with the summary face sheet, a copy of the original application, and contact information for the insurance agent.

As a general rule, keep the same data for any policy canceled or lapsed within the prior two years. Plus, keep the appraisals and purchase receipts for personal possessions that have specific insurance coverage (for instance, artwork or jewelry).

In the life insurance file, add information about other potential death benefits (for instance, from credit card companies, the Veteran’s Administration, or associations such as the American Automobile Association).

Employee Benefits
For each family member, have a file for the current and prior curriculum vitae and a file for each employer, past, and present.

For current employers, keep the employment agreement, plus whatever information the employer gives you each year about the benefits package. (Keep only the current copy of bulky employee manuals but consider keeping all prior annual summary sheets of compensation details.) Establish a distinct folder for each company’s deferred-compensation plan, restricted stock program, and each stock option plan, with all associated legal papers and correspondence.

For prior employers, keep the employment agreement, plus any separation agreement, performance reports and reference letters, plus documentation of how retirement and options accounts were closed or transferred, and documentation of retiree benefits including elections for pensions and insurance coverage.

Personal Roadmap
In the event of a community emergency or of your personal incapacity, you or your heirs need a detailed roadmap of your financial life.

Home Inventory
Create a home inventory to use in the event of a major loss. Photographic documentation helps your memory and helps prove ownership. After a major disaster, insureds with a complete photographic home inventory tend to get the most prompt and complete reimbursement from insurance companies.

There are many books and software programs available for this purpose, as well as online subscription services for storing photographs.

Aim to have photographs, either still shots, videos or digital records, of each room and each drawer. (A dated newspaper in each shot helps confirm ownership as of a particular date.)

Keep a copy at home and also off-site.

Online Data Storage

Photographs can be stored either for free or for a modest annual fee at several sites including,,, and

Documents can be stored on the Web through various providers including .Mac for Mac users, or a subscription site offered through Yahoo! and other services such as Pro-SoftNet’s IBackup and Xdrive services. In addition, most of the home finance software programs now offer online data storage including, for example, Quicken.

Note: While these services are proliferating, there is not yet an industry standard for protection of data, suggesting careful due diligence before posting your own data. On-line data storage is also not a sufficient back-up plan since in an emergency that downs the Internet, you would lose access to that data.

Warranties and Owner's Manuals
This file holds warranties and owner's manuals for your everyday possessions that are not specifically insured—e.g., the lawn mower and the air humidifiers. Don’t waste time maintaining this file in any particular order. Every year or two, edit the file. When you move, pull out the papers that stay with the house.

Proof of Transactions
At the beginning of each calendar year, establish an accordion file (or, for your computer, its equivalent for scanned files). Label each divider with a certain kind of transaction: Income (this would include pay stubs, Social Security, pension payments, rent or royalty income, and other income); and expenses (utilities, tuition, charitable contributions, credit card bills, insurance premiums, household help, medical expenses, tax payments, and whatever else is a part of your regular budget, as well as the all-important MISC section for things that don’t seem to fit anywhere else).

In addition, keep a section for each bank account, and place each month’s statement and canceled checks for that account in that section.

As you take care of daily finances throughout the year, drop papers into the appropriate section of the accordion file. At year-end, use this file to help prepare taxes. Then, relegate the file to an archive storage location and begin anew.

Keep each annual file for seven years. Shred the oldest file as you add a new file each year. Don't fuss about keeping each section in order; if you drop the newest addition to each section in the back, the papers will be fairly well ordered.

Set up one file for each investment account. If the year-end statement shows the complete transaction history for the full year, just save each year-end statement. Otherwise, keep each mid-year statement, as well as trade confirmations, so that you can track the cost basis for each investment when it comes time to sell.

Be sure to throw out the envelope stuffers that come with your statement along with annual reports and prospectus materials; only keep papers that have your personal data.

In addition, keep a distinct individual file for any other investment that you might have—for instance, shares in a limited partnership, or a rental property, or a loan to an adult child.

As investments are sold, move the cost basis documentation to the tax file for the year of the sale. If accounts are transferred to another investment firm, transfer the papers from the former firm’s file to the new firm’s file.

For each vehicle you own, keep titles and, if you are meticulous, maintenance records.

For each property you own, include the lease, or deed with a closing statement, documentation of permanent improvements with receipts, appraisals, records of open mortgages and proof of former mortgages being paid in full.

Personal Papers
Have a distinct file for each family member. Keep birth and baptismal certificates, confirmation records, Social Security card, diplomas and professional licenses, wedding license, military discharge papers, proof of citizenship, divorce agreement, list of dates and facts that you would like mentioned in your obituary, data for your death certificate, cemetery plot information, final letters to heirs, preferred choice for custodial care providers and information about what kind of memorial service or funeral you want.

Family Passports
Keep passports in a distinct Family Passport file so that preparation for travel abroad is easy.

Family History
For each person in the family, have a distinct family history file. In this file, store individual medical information, such as immunization records, lab and X-ray results and operative reports.

Use this file also as a place to store odd bits of emotionally meaningful information—for example, when your uncle sends information on your family tree, or when your child writes a wonderful poem.

Some people consolidate these papers with the Personal Papers file.

Consider These Real-World Issues

When you are setting up your files, be sure to take your personal circumstances into consideration:

You should also make sure to go for a certain amount of redundancy. For instance, have you prepared for different kinds of disasters? If there is a natural disaster in your hometown you need back-up data stored out of town. If you have a minor file loss at home, it is best to have back-up copies accessible right in your home.

Most of us know that to securely maintain important files it is necessary to have a fireproof safe with a lock at home, preferably in a very discreet hiding place or access to a bank safe deposit box. If you have been assuming that paper files can be easily reconstructed (for instance, by your attorney, banker or financial advisor) at least inquire if each of the parties has addressed the need for off-site, secure data storage on your behalf.

Maintaining security for computerized files is an important field. Be sure to get periodic expert advice.

Importantly, insist on easy maintenance. As a general rule, the less likely that you will ever retrieve papers, the less time you should spend keeping that file in precise order.

Roadmap for Heirs

In the event of your sudden death or incapacity, your heirs or caregivers need a map of your personal affairs. Use the following list as a starting point. Keep it up-to-date in your personal financial files and be sure your heirs have a current copy.



Local Police

Financial Records

Home Computer

Your Personal Contacts

List those who you would like contacted in the event of a major incapacity or death. Give full names and contact information, including (where applicable) the name of the firm.

Your Healthcare

Name, address & phone number for each:


Custodial Care

Postmortem Preferences

Data for Death Certificate

For each person this roadmap covers:

What You Own

What You Owe

Credit cards are listed in a different section. In this section, including information about each major debt, including:

Your Income

For each income source, name the entity providing the income, how often you receive payments, and location of relevant contact information, including:

Main Expenses

In addition to regular utilities, property taxes, insurance premiums, and estimated tax payments, there are the following regular expenses: