Among all the New Year's resolutions made two weeks ago, few carry a more ominous burden than the simple "This year I'm going to get organized."
Even in a household of modest means, the paperwork pile can easily get out of control-bills, pay stubs, bank statements, canceled checks and too many others to mention.At the start of a new year, the flow reaches flood stage with W-2's, 1099s and the other trappings of income taxes.
Most people don't have many alternatives to coping with this problem, whether their filing system reposes in a single desk drawer or a sophisticated computer program.
You can pass along the burden of filling out your tax forms to some trusted friend or paid preparer. But there is no way to dodge the legal responsibility of being able to document where you stand with Uncle Sam.
"The burden of proof for the accuracy of your return is directly on you-not your accountant, tax adviser or tax preparer," notes the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen & Co. in its "Tax Guide and Planner" for 1989.
Tax laws passed in recent years have only served to increase the emphasis on record-keeping.
These days, if you inadvertently fail to report the interest earned on some small, forgotten bank account, the Internal Revenue Service can quickly catch the omission.
Then, it can demand not only tax payment for the neglected amount but interest on the balance due and maybe penalties as well.
Once you get your records in order, of course, there's the continuing challenge of keeping them organized. What to do, say, with that file marked 'Checking Account-1979"?
The IRS usually has three years from the filing deadline to audit an individual income tax return. The limit is six years if your income is underreported by more than 25 percent.
And there is so statute of limitations in cases where anyone has filed a fraudulent return or no return at all.
Let's suppose you are reasonably confident you reported all your 1979 income and didn't commit any kind of deceit in doing so. The deadline has passed for auditing your '79 return, so you can go ahead and throw that folder away...
But WAIT! Does it contain receipts for improvements you made to your house? Statements from a mutual fund in which you still have an investment? Documents showing non-deductible contributions to a retirement savings plan?
Things like these could have an important bearing on the taxes you might owe in some future year. Their rightful place is in a "permanent" set of records independent of year-by-year files.
"In general," Arthur Andersen's advisers conclude, "when you're in doubt about the importance of any record, keep it."
If all this makes you feel like an unpaid clerk-secretary in thrall to the government, don't despair. Good records can have other purposes and benefits.
In the course of compiling and maintaining them, you can keep yourself and your loved ones informed about where you stand financially-how you are progressing toward some goal, or just "where does all the money go?"
Records may also be vital to the orderly disposition of your affairs should you die or become disabled.
"What would happen is someone needed to understand your affairs but couldn't discuss them with you?" Arthur Andersen observes.
"That day will unavoidably come, which is a powerful argument for maintaining clear, accurate, accessible records of your tax and financial life."