Care in squirreling tax papers brings order out of chaos

More than shoes fill shoe boxes. Besides old campaign buttons, extra spools of threat, and other ''junk,'' shoe boxes often are filled with something that can be vital and valuable, especially at this time of year: tax records.

In the past year, the flexible sides of the shoe box have grown corpulent with canceled checks, receipts for bills, statements of interest, and all the other pieces of information needed to fill out tax forms and prove those deductions.

If your shoe box, however, is missing some of the records you need to do your 1981 taxes, you may be trying to think of a better way to organize your records this year.

John Schiffman, a partner at Smith, Batchelder & Rugg, a Hanover, N.H., accounting firm, says that for some people a shoe box may not be a bad idea. For others, even a brown grocery sack might do. While the system does not have to be fancy or complicated, something a little more sophisticated, like manila folders or several brown envelopes, may help you get more organized and encourage discipline.

The point is, your system of record-keeping should make sense to you and anyone who will be helping you with your tax returns, such as a tax accountant or preparation service.

Well-organized records not only help you at tax time, Mr. Schiffman says, they also help you keep up to date with your financial situation, know your spending habits, and see how certain expenses have changed. This way, you always have an accurate picture of where you are financially and where you are going.

Good records also help you spot and take advantage of future deductions. ''Minimizing the tax burden takes planning, and that takes records,'' Schiffman said.

There are some items that should not be kept in shoe boxes or paper bags. These would include legal documents, wills, insurance policies, and sales receipts or appraisal documents for valuables like jewelry, artwork, and electronic equipment. For these papers, a fireproof metal box or your safe-deposit box is more secure.

For the rest, Schiffman says, a good, basic system of categorizing your papers is in order, so to speak. The categories might include:

* Stocks, bonds, and other securities, including any transaction records.

* Home ownership records.

* Banking records, including canceled checks and check registers.

* Insurance papers other than actual policies.

* Charge and credit card accounts, including statements of interest paid during the year.

* Tax records. Because state and local income and sales taxes are deductible on federal taxes, you'll want to keep records of these taxes, particularly if you made any major purchases, like an automobile or large appliances.

* Debt and loan records, including debts owed to you and how much you were paid.

* Pension records, including any special retirement accounts, such as an individual retirement account, annuities, and profit-sharing plans, if these are included in your retirement fund.

Having your tax records in good order can also save you money if you have an accountant do the work, Schiffman notes. ''Certified public accountants generally charge by the hour,'' he said, ''and if they have to spend a lot of time trying to straighten out a mess of paper, it's going to cost you money.''

Generally, most of these records should be kept for at least five years. If the Internal Revenue Service is going to audit you, it has three years to question your return, longer if there is evidence of fraud or substantial understatement of income, Schiffman says. And if your annual income changes dramatically, you may be eligible for income averaging, a tax computation method that lets you spread the heavier tax burden over a five-year period. In this case, you'll need tax returns from the previous four years, as well as this year.

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