Paperwork Retention

August 12, 2023

I am not a lawyer or a financial advisor, I am a Judgment Broker. If you ever need legal advice or a strategy to use, please contact a lawyer.

Remember when the media once told us the internet would make everything paperless? It seems that while most entities now do generate less paperwork, there are more entities now to generate paperwork.

As time passes, most filing cabinets tend to become overfilled. However, we refer to the documents stored there much less often.

Cleaning up file folders is usually a low priority chore. In many cases, file folders become overstuffed. This adds hassle to moves, and after we die, those we leave behind must sort though hundreds of papers to find that one needed document.

It is a good idea to prune file folders annually, or every few years. I think it is best to thin one section of a file cabinet at a time, while listening to music or watching TV. That makes the sorting job painless and quick.

With periodic documents (e.g., bills), generally you should keep the first and the last few. Instead of keeping ten years of utility bills, keep the first one and the last three. If you need to itemize and save all of some paperwork for taxes, then store the documents in your tax files.

A good scanner reduces the filing cabinet load. One example of a good scanner with PDF creation software, is the Fujitsu SnapScan. You can keep the PDFs in organized folders on your computer. Of course, make several backups of your computer both with removable/external drives AND cloud backups. If you want to edit or merge PDF files, see A hand-scanner, such as the Wolverine also works. PDFKey Pro is a good PDF unlocking program.

Mac or PC, make sure you back up the PDFs on at least two other disks (e.g., a cloud backup, and a backup to an external drive/disk).

As good as cloud storage is, you need a local backup too. While the motto seems to be “trust the cloud”, computers and networks do go down. Hurricanes, power loss, floods, earthquakes, etc., could make even the best go down or become unavailable.

After you scan what you need into PDFs, and your computer is properly backed up, you can start throwing out or shredding most of your paper records. When something bad happens where you are, a cloud backup of PDFs could end up being much safer than a single set of paper-based records.

Obviously, taxes, legal, medical, and financial records are all a much higher priority than are utility records. There is no need to save trivial or temporary records. Keep some bank statements, throw away all your ATM receipts.

Of course, you must have a shredder for any personal information papers you are discarding. Make sure you have a quality shredder, that cross-cuts the papers, and that can accept several pieces of paper at once (or shred a credit card or disk).

Here is my opinion on how long to keep records:

Some records, should be kept for decades, or for life:

Birth certificates, corporate documents, CPA audit reports, death certificates, diplomas, tax returns, licenses, retirement and pension records, important summary legal documents, patents, and trademarks.

Some records, should be kept for six years:

Accident reports and claims, annual financial statements, builder contracts, important correspondence, important legal documents, property records, purchase records, registration applications, and sales records. Mortgages, deeds, and leases – keep for six years past ownership or rental.

Some records, should be kept for three years:

Improvement receipts, insurance policies, medical bills, payroll records, property records, stock records, and vendor invoices.

Other kinds of records depend on how long you own or keep assets:

Bills and credit card receipts (keep until they show up on the next statement), pay stubs (keep until you get your W2), sales receipts (keep as long as you own something), vehicle records (keep them for two years after the vehicle is sold), warranties and instructions (keep as long as you own something).

Because I am a judgment broker, here is my opinion about records retention in a judgment enforcement or debt collection business, or if you recover your own judgments. As with personal records, you do not need to save everything.

For a long time, I thought in all cases, you can shred everything in a judgment case file five years after the judgment is satisfied, is worthless because of bankruptcy, or is returned to the original judgment creditor. However, recently I changed my mind, and keep judgment case files for at least 10 years, instead of 5 years because of what happened to me:

Some guy called me in 2008 about a 2008 judgment, he sent me his judgment, so I sent him my paperwork (a purchase contract and an assignment of judgment form). He never returned it, and I emailed him a few times and got no response. This happens often, so in 2011, I shredded his case file, as 3 years and no response is a dead lead to me. In 2012, that guy called me again, mad as a hornet, telling me I was a scammer and a liar, and a thief, how he was going to trash my name and sue me, all because I could not find his name or judgment in my database or case files. I quickly scanned my email and saw what happened – he never returned my paperwork.

I do not know if the post office lost his paperwork, or if he flaked, but I never owned the judgment, and the court case file showed the judgment was still valid and there was no activity at all after the judgment was won. I did nothing wrong, yet I am at a disadvantage because I shredded the case file on a dead lead. There is no valid cause of action as I did nothing wrong, and there are no damages, yet unfortunately any loon can start a lawsuit.

Now my advice is to keep old judgment case files forever, however they need not clog up your current filing system. Simply put all files in alphabetical order in an inexpensive cardboard file box you can buy from any office supply store. Mark the file information on top of the box, where it can easily be seen. Seal tightly with package tape, and if you are afraid the box may get wet wrap the entire box in cellophane wrap. Store it in a safe place that you can easily access.

Virtually all judgment enforcers use either a calculator with a ledger book, a database, a spreadsheet, or a judgment or finance program; to keep track of payments, costs, and interest accruals.

If you use a system to track everything, you do not need to keep every document for five years. If you prepared four court-stamped memorandum of costs over time, you only need to keep one copy of the latest one, that summarizes the previous costs and credits.

Once a writ has expired, you only need to keep one copy of it. You only need to keep one original court-endorsed copy of abstracts of judgment, assignments of judgment, and satisfactions of judgment.

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