Question: Sorting paperwork in my free time during quarantine. What advice do you have?

All this time at home has given some of us the motivation to get to those ‘projects’. First I love paper: documents, mail, newspaper, magazines, etc. I love and enjoy reading it, and saving it. Do I need all of it? Definitely not! Will I ever look at it again? Probably not. We all have different comfort levels with paperwork. Some of us save everything, others shred everything. The advice I would give is somewhere in between.

For personal mail like letters, cards, e-mails with no private or protected information on them, it is your decision. I have a box I put all that stuff in each year. With the start of the New Year, I tape up the old box, label it with the year, and start a new box. Why do I do that? (My husband asks all the time!) Someday I may want to revisit those old memories. Will I ever? Probably NOT! I don’t like throwing it out because it makes me feel like the effort put out by that other person isn’t appreciated. You certainly can make your own decision on these kinds of personal correspondence.

Legal documents like Wills, Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Birth Certificates, Marriage Certificates, Deeds, and Life Insurance papers should be kept forever. Ideally store these documents in a fire rated storage lock box, or you may have a Safe Deposit Box. These documents are things you will need for a very long time and want them to be in a very safe place, away from harm and wandering eyes.

For tax documents and tax returns, the IRS recommends, “at least seven (7) years”. You can certainly keep them longer, but seven years is enough. I recommend storing these in a fire proof box, so they are safe and easy to find if necessary.

For documents relating to finances, I recommend keeping all documents at least five (5) years. I say five years because in a situation where an individual (or couple) needs to apply for Medicaid, the law requires a five year “look-back period”. This means you must provide documents and proof of all financial transactions within that five year look-back.

For this same reason, I recommend keeping all credit card statements, doctor bills, insurance bills and statements and other similar documents for five years. If you keep all this information (and keep it together) when you are trying to re-create your financial history, you have all the necessary supporting documents that you need.

When storing documents for these five years, you can develop a system that works for you using cardboard boxes, accordion files, file cabinet, or something else. How you save it is not as important as saving it. Always be sure to label your boxes or folders for reference.

Utility, phone, internet, cable bills, etc. do not need to be kept as long. Some people throw them out when the next month’s bill has been paid. I keep these types of paid bills for two years. This is a personal choice.

Once it is time to dispose of the information, I recommend shredding whatever has your name and other personal data on it such as date of birth, tax ID numbers, medical history, etc. This will help prevent identify theft. Some people purchase shredders, or you can also take it to have it shredded. I do NOT recommend burning the documents for environmental reasons.

I hope that this has given you useful information for keeping and destroying your documents. Keeping these documents in an organized system can help reduce costs and frustration later. If you feel like this job of sorting paper is more than you can handle alone, ask for help. This process can seem overwhelming, but once completed you will feel much better. You will also feel more in control of your documents and your living space.

Senior Life Matters is a community based program sponsored by Lutheran Jamestown. For questions and concerns or to reach Janell Sluga, GCMC, call us at 716-720-9797 or e-mail at