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Going Paperless: What to keep on Paper

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It’s been a while since my last post in this series. We enjoyed our first christmas with our newborn in the circle of our families. Truly wonderful weeks. I used this relaxed “time between the years” to do some research on what kinds of documents I could really get rid of (scan & shred) – and maybe more importantly – what I would definitely want to keep as paper original. Here’s what I found.

I think there are fundamentally 2 points to understand:

1st – WHAT to keep and for how long.
2nd – If it’s ok to keep that stuff ONLY in digital form at all.

Actually – I’ll start with this 2nd part.

I found an interesting paper by Dr. Richard Beyer about the legal relevance of documents archived in digital form under German law. He discussed this (in German language) for corporations, so that’s to keep in mind.

I understood Dr. Beyer concluded that, while cogency of proof can come in different shapes of which the original document certainly is the most powerful, an archived version of that original practically turns out to be just as powerful when „typical circumstances“ of the matter suggest „let’s not overcomplicate things“. So that’s where the rubber hits the road: Would a judge consider a hypothetical case as critical and unique enough to require a proof of genuineness of archived copies. Hmmm – so that answer is a juridically clear „depends“

Now – in order to get a better feeling for this „depends“ thing, I took a closer look at question #1 – recommendations on what to keep for how long.

For that I found an article by Andrea Herrmann of the German FoeBuD organisation. This is an association that aims to support peoples rights, unhindered communication and the protection of personal data. Andrea gives an overview of what one should keep for how long. Her differentiation by recommended time to keep documents indicates to me what I should probably regard as really critical. So here’s in short:

NEVER THROW AWAY
(sorry but some are very very obvious)

  • ID card
  • Drivers licence
  • Marriage certificate
  • Birth certificate
  • Educational certificates
  • Carreer documentation (Employment contracts, employer references, etc)
  • Payment bills
  • Tax bills
  • Social security certificates
  • Pension information
  • Medical surveys
  • Death certificates of family members
  • Court decisions
  • Records of a case

KEEP 5+ YEARS

  • Income tax declarations and supporting documents (5+ years)
  • Insurance contracts (for duration of the contract)

KEEP 3+ YEARS

  • Bank statements (3+ years)
  • Lease contracts (3+ years)

KEEP 2+ YEARS

  • Purchase receipts (2+ years) (longer if you want prove the value of your household to an insurance)

Now what did this tell me for my purpose? Still nothing definitive, actually. But in order to draw my personal „depends“ line, I’ll look at Andrea’s „never throw away“ group and within that I’ll carefully consider: What would create a substantial problem to me in case an archived copy of the original would not be regarded by a judge as sufficient to prove my point in the light of „typical circumstances“. Again, that’s a very individual choice to make and I’ll personally rather stay way on the safe side there.

That will sure not allow me to get rid of all paper in my personal administration. However the remaining list of documents that I decide to keep in paper form is FAR shorter than what I kept so far. Plus, I will of course still scan those high importance documents as an extra layer of backup. Also, everything I have at hand in digital form empowers me to act faster anywhere. At least until someone insists on getting the original paper copy. Which I then am happy to pick out of my 3-4 remaining folders instead of todays 30 or so. Easy.

Anyone with a better systematic to support the selection criteria – please shout! Much appreciated.

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