Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

5 precious papers to hang on to

With some important documents, there's nothing like the original. Life will be easier if you keep these safe in your files.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Few documents are truly irreplaceable.

As I wrote in "Purge your financial paperwork," you can get new copies of birth, death and marriage certificates. Your insurers have copies of your policies. Banks, brokerages and credit card companies can send you reprints of your statements for at least the past six years, which is as long as you're likely to need them.

But sometimes there's nothing like the real thing, baby.

While most other documents can be scanned and discarded, you should hang on to the originals of the following:

The new-car sticker

Also known as the "Monroney label," after the U.S. senator who advocated its creation in 1958, the window sticker on a new car is full of valuable data that can help you with:

  • Insurance claims

  • Recalls and

  • Enhancing the vehicle's future sale or trade-in value

With a Monroney label, there's no question about the car's features -- they're all listed. You can show a potential buyer or your insurer exactly what came with the car, according to veteran auto writer Jim Mateja, from the type of engine to whether it has side-impact airbags.

The Monroney label also includes the car's serial number and where it was manufactured, which can help you track down whether any factory recalls affect your car, said Mateja, a Chicago Tribune auto reporter who writes for Cars.com's Kicking Tires blog. The sticker also can help establish the vehicle's value for insurance purposes, since all of its original features are listed.

"It's like the birth certificate for your car," Mateja said. "If someone asks, 'Does it have antilock brakes or side curtain airbags,' or 'Which engine does it have,' all the questions can be answered within seconds . . . you have proof."

Original documentation (along with repair receipts) helps establish you as a meticulous owner, one whose used car will fetch a higher price in a private sale. And if you were to hold onto the car long enough for it to become a collectible, the original Monroney in the glove box could help establish the vehicle's authenticity and add thousands to its value.

If you can show all the upgrades a car has, Mateja said, "you're justified in asking a higher price than someone who can't."

Your tax returns -- all of them

You can ditch all the supporting documentation after seven years, but the tax returns themselves should stay with you for life.

The IRS and state income tax agencies typically are limited in how long they can audit your returns -- unless they decide you didn't file for a certain year.

IRS failure-to-file audits aren't that common, but tax expert Eva Rosenberg has had several clients scrutinized by state tax agencies insisting that returns from previous decades were missing.

"Some idiot state will come up and say you never filed for (a certain) year," said Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs TaxMama.com." At least keep the tax return and anything that proves you paid a tax bill or got a return for that year."

As with all other important documents, you'd be smart to scan copies of your tax return into your computer and make back-ups that are kept in a safe place.

"Scan them in PDF form but keep the originals," Rosenberg said. "You never know when the media will change." (Remember floppy disks?)

Continued: Hedging against Social Security mistakes

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