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Should you shred your paperwork or store it?

Siski Green / 02 March 2018 ( 06 March 2019 )

What paperwork should you keep and what can you throw away – it’s an important question that can have big consequences if you get it wrong.

Shredding confidential paperwork
Should you shred or should you keep?

No one likes giant piles of paperwork, they gather dust, prey on your mind and take up space. And now that so much is digital, there’s always a record, right? Why clutter up your home with paper when it’s all on your computer?

Well, bearing in mind that digital records are no safer than paper records – they can be wiped out by a virus in the same way your home records could go up in flames or be damaged by flooding, and that sensitive data of yours may be accessible if it’s stored on your computer. It’s worthwhile keeping both as safely as possible. That way, you’ll always have the information you need when you need it.

So what exactly will you need? Find out by reading on. 

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Keep it for 15 months –  or maybe longer…

Tax-related paperwork

HMRC says that as long you send your tax return on time each year (that is before January 31st of the following year), you’ll only need to keep records for the last 15 months.

However, the HMRC can fine you if your records are incomplete or faulty – so rather than risk that, keep paperwork for the past two years for tax purposes. This means keeping utility bills, payslips, P45s and other employment paperwork, benefits records, pension records, bank and building society statements and capital gains tax records.

If, however, you are self-employed, keep 6 years of paperwork – that means invoices, receipts (unless the card statement shows the item), statements of interest from banks and building societies, dividend vouchers, income related to rental property, expenses, and so on.

Visit YouGov's page on how long to keep business records if you're self-employed

Another caveat is this: you never really know when you might need old financial paperwork. Consider this – if you’ve ever had payment protection insurance (as far back as 20 years ago), you could be due compensation now. But to get it, you’ll need to provide evidence going back to when you paid the PPI.

PPI was paid on loans, overdrafts, credit cards, catalogue accounts, and car finance (on a mortgage, for example, it may have been called your ‘protection plan’ or ‘ASU’ or  ‘payment cover’ and because of a new ruling, called Plevin, which says it was mis-sold, many people are owed compensation for overpaying.

Keep it for five years

Manufacturers’ warranties, the receipt, and user instructions

As soon as you buy a new TV, dishwasher or wardrobe, put all the paperwork together in one place. Because even once a warranty has run out, you may be able to get a refund or a replacement product if you can show the item was faulty based on the date you bought it (evidence provided via the receipt).

Keeping the receipt and warranty will also be useful if you decide to sell the item – buyers will be reassured to see paper evidence of how old the item is. NB Of course, if your item has a guarantee for five years or more, keep the paperwork for longer. 

Everything… if you’re on any kind of benefit

Okay, not everything, but nearly – for those who claim tax credits or are on benefits, the HMRC recommends keeping council tax bills, utility, mobile phone, gas, electricity, rent paperwork, bank statements, and other bills and receipts. Because to prove that you should still qualify for benefits, you’ll need to show incoming and outgoing finances in detail.

Which disability benefits could you be entitled to?

Get yourself a large box with file separators and put your bills and receipts into sections: utilities, council tax, phone, rent, bank, food and other outgoing receipts, and ‘other’ for those miscellaneous bits of paper that don’t have a clear home. That way, you’ll never get caught short when your paperwork gets checked. 

Keep it forever

Birth or adoption certificates, passports

These are obviously things to keep in a safe place so you always know where to find them. Designate a box or drawer where you keep these kinds of things and let other members of your family, a close friend or neighbour know, so that they can access them if you can’t for some reason. 

Renovations/repairs/upgrade paperwork

If your home or car has undergone repairs, you’ve had new windows put in, or you’ve had a kitchen renovation or the roof redone for example, keep the paperwork.

The reason is simple – if you need to sell your home or car, buyers will want to see evidence of this work that’s been done. It’s not enough for you to show them your lovely new double-glazing, they’ll need to see the paperwork too. Similarly they’ll want to see building regulation consent paperwork if you’ve had major renovation work done.

It’s not only about buying/selling, though – insurance companies may also request paperwork like this if your house suffers a fire, flooding or similar.  

Deeds and conveyancing documents

Most homes are registered at the Land Registry so there’ll be an electronic entry, but old deeds sometimes contain details that aren’t in those electronic records. Covenants, for example, which can dictate what can be done with a property (not permitting the building of a block of flats, for example, or cutting down of trees) may only be referenced on the old paper deeds. 

Medical records

While the NHS will keep your medical records on file for a long time – maternity records, for example, are kept until 25 years after the birth of the child, and for those diagnosed with a mental disorder, it’s 20 years. But they won’t remain forever and there could be some reason you want access much later on – for example, your children or grandchildren might want details of an illness or problem, to help diagnose their own health issues.

What’s more, sometimes health disorders are found to be related to certain medications or treatments – if you can provide evidence of having had those specific drugs or treatments, in some circumstances (such as where a manufacturer has been shown to be negligent, for example) you may be able to claim compensation or at the very least have a greater understanding of your current health status.

You can request copies of your records (you may be charged a fee) via the NHS

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.